I grew up in Orange County, California. I love the people I grew up with, and I know there are plenty of lovely people who reside there today. These two facts make the recent incident very personal.
“Some Orange County Republican leaders are denouncing an email distributed by a long-serving party committee member that portrays President Obama’s face superimposed on a chimpanzee, with the words: “Now you know why – No birth certificate!””
“County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh has called for the resignation of Marilyn Davenport, an elected member of the party central committee who sent the email to some committee members and others last week.” – LA Times, Sunday, April 17, 2011.
What followed the initial public outcry about the email was an “apology” issued by Ms. Davenport that was rather more self-justification than apologetic. And, I think I know why…and I think I know how we can understand its connection to an underlying cultural problem (affecting people on both the right and left of the political spectrum, possibly equally, albeit differently).
ISSUE #1. Colorblindness
Ms. Davenport says that her posting was “unwise”, but that she didn’t even think that the picture had anything to do with race. (Please note, for both strategic and heartfelt reasons, I’m choosing to believe her. It is quite possible that she DID NOT consider race overtly when she decided to send that email. Her candid – and seriously problematic – responses to reporters’ questions only convince me of this.)
I find it ironic that just a few weeks ago I returned from offering a presentation that included a good number of images that showed our history of African American people depicted as primates as a way to highlight how ignorant most of us are regarding how our past is very much alive in our present. The images dated back to the 1700’s and 1800’s. I also offered images from the 1900’s and a few that were within the last few years…several of which showed Obama as the chimp in the image.
The basic message I was trying to convey is that there is very long history in the U.S. of equating people of African descent with primates. It’s been used as justifications for abuse, violence, and the attitude that African Americans are somehow less than human, and these themes have been around since the formation of our country.
The fact that Ms. Davenport could possibly be ignorant of this history and the ways that it continues in the present is a primary problem here. The wish to simply “leave race in the past” and “move on as a colorblind society” is largely to blame. (Please note: I advocate race-consciousness over colorblindness…for lots and lots of reason. But, that is the entire presentation. Not enough time for that here..)
Many of us in the white community tend to want to concentrate on the “good” part of our history in order to help make our children “proud” of being U.S. citizens. Further, since we don’t pay sufficient attention to how race has played a role in our nation’s historic and contemporary lives, we choose ignorance for ourselves and our young people. (See the recent legislation in Texas.)
However, we see here with Ms. Davenport that what we actually do with that approach is leave our citizenry incapable of navigating a complex, diverse world without unintentionally doing significant harm. In other words, we end up hamstringing ourselves….and ensuring that no resolution or healing to our nation’s trauma regarding race is achieved.
ISSUE #2. Intent v. Impact — not the same as being P.C.
Ms. Davenport, when asked about her choice of recipients, said that she’d chosen only those she didn’t think would be offended. When further questioned, she was able to name that she felt those who MIGHT be offended would be those of other races. (For future reference, this, right here, is a really great way to know if something is racist. If you have a suspicion that it might offend an entire group of people of a certain background, this is a sure fire way of knowing that it is likely racist.)
That said, let us be clear that ignorance is not the same thing as innocence. Ms. Davenport acted in a way that injured. Her impact is highly problematic and hurtful.
Also, let us recognize that this issue of intent v. impact is not the same as being politically correct. This is about being able to choose to act in ways that do not continue to build on hundreds of years of racism. This is also about being educated, thoughtful, and able to represent the diverse swath of people you represent with every action taken.
ISSUE #3. Anti-racism from within the GOP.
Now, Mr. Scott Baugh deserves some praise here. Regardless of whatever politics might underlie his strong opposition to Ms. Davenport…the fact remains that he’s able to name that it’s not her intent that really matters here. He stops short of explaining intent v. impact and then veers into the politics of it all. But, it’s important that he get credit for demonstrating that the GOP is not exclusively the home of people who give less than a damn about ending racism.
So, thank you, Scott Baugh. You’re headed in an important direction…and I look forward to seeing you at future events meant to highlight issues of race, racism and the need to dismantle privilege…particularly the kind of privilege that continues to give white people the ability to hide behind claims of colorblindness, ignorance, or innocence. We need everyone standing up against racism…and it’s important that we not see it as a political issue. Both right and left…all of us together…is the vision needed.
And for my part…I’ll be happy to sit and chat with Ms. Davenport. I think I can help explain why her words of “apology” sound so hollow to so many….and I think I can do it with a loving spirit. So, Ms. Davenport, feel free to give me a call. It’s taken me a long time to see how racism moves and continues…and if you’re interested, I’d be happy to share what I now perceive.