Two distinct conversations on race have dominated this February, the first black history month with a black American president. One consisted of a steady stream of outrage over publication of a cartoon in the NEW YORK POST depicting a chimpanzee being shot to death. The other concerned a blunt and, some say, accusatory speech by Attorney General Eric Holder, in which he calls America "a nation of cowards" when it comes to race. Both instances have been almost laughably mistreated by the press.
The POST controversy quickly morphed into a maudlin shouting match. Perennial bloom Al Sharpton has condemned the cartoon, and marshaled an inexhaustible reserve of followers to protest outside the newspaper's offices, prompting a printed apology from NewsCorp head Rupert Murdoch. On the cable airwaves, former NAACP head Julian Bond called the drawing "an invitation to assassinate the President of the United States." The image was crude, of course, and oblique—even worse. But we think its greatest sin, much like the maligned Barry Blitt NEW YORKER cover in July, was being an un-funny joke. As Whoopi Goldberg said to Bill O'Reilly last week, after the Fox anchor insulted White House correspondent Helen Thomas, "If you're going to do a little humor, learn how to do it."
The cartoon brouhaha also overshadowed the important message that Holder brought to a Justice Department whose civil rights division was starved during the Bush years. Some have said Holder's admonishments were too harsh for an America still congratulating itself on the election of its first black president, who in turn chose the country's first black top cop. But the US criminal justice system does implicate blacks, and black men in particular, in a more pernicious and permanent fashion. Holder, a black man who insisted "one cannot truly understand America without understanding the historical experience of black people in this nation," was both doing his job and being himself; and by signaling a clean break with Bush-era indifference, the speech made up for what it lacked in specific policy proposals.
The media, which knows well how to cover something sensational, and how to sensationalize something nuanced, dropped the ball on both stories. Holder's necessary speech was put into a box and out of sight; the harmless cartoon-itself riffing on a "freak show" media story-was tailor-made for swirling controversy. Look! Monkeys! NYPD! In the face of a collapsing economy and unemployment numbers that are inflated in communities of color, some black leaders did look-at a cheap bait that will not change the circumstances of a single black life.
Perhaps W.E.B. DuBois put it better in an 1897 ATLANTIC MONTHLY essay, on race talk:
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.
But more than a century later, that "national conversation"-while easily derided as cliché-is something which the first black Attorney General had every right to call for.
—DAYO OLOPADE and ISAAC CHOTINER
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.