Riddle me this: The New York Post, a famously combative, conservative newspaper owned by Fox News proprietor Rupert Murdoch, publishes a cartoon Wednesday implying that a crazed chimpanzee wrote the recent economic stimulus bill, which was actually championed by our nation's first black president.
Is that a racist joke?
Longtime civil rights activist Al Sharpton thinks it might be, calling it "troubling at best." New York Gov. David Paterson, who is that state's first black chief executive, has said "an explanation is in order." And the controversy hit the same day Eric Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, said in a speech that America is a "nation of cowards" on race because we often avoid candid discussions of the topic.
As a media critic, this is where times get interesting. Because our leaders have been aging white guys for so long, pundits, cartoonists, comedians and journalists have had pretty easy rules when it came to pointed political satire.
But we live in a new age. We have a black president; a woman came within a few hundred primary delegates of snagging the job, too. And jokes that might have rolled off the back of a typical politician now take on new resonance when levied against someone from a race that has been stereotyped as ape-ish and animalistic for hundreds of years.
Consider this: When someone builds a Web site called www.bushorchimp.com — which actually exists — they're talking about a specific president, who is white, and his reputation for anti-intellectualism. But if a smart, witty politician who is black gets compared to a chimp, is there a reason for the comparison besides his race?
Post editor-in-chief Col Allan accused Sharpton of opportunism, saying in a statement, "The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut." I prefer to think it was an awful joke with resonance beyond what Allen's crew planned — a lesson, perhaps, in jumping too gleefully on the train of in-your-face parody. A friend online called it "unintentional racism."
But the "is it racism?" issue is only half the conversation; the lingering question is whether the Post even considered that some of their readers in the most diverse city in America might think they were comparing President Obama to a chimp.
If they considered the possibility but published the cartoon anyway, that may be the most disappointing news of all. Especially if they did it deliberately to provoke a controversy.
As any person of color can tell you, it's tough to know what someone means when they say something like this. And if you really don't mean to be racist, do you really want some people thinking that you might be — even if you get a little publicity out of it?
Eric Deggans wrote this post originally on The Feed, his blog that chronicles TV and the media. If you'd like to comment on this piece, go to blogs.tampabay.com/media.