Offensive email recalls historical racial stereotypes

This week an email sent by Orange County Republican party central committee member Marilyn Davenport was released to the public. The email contained a photo depicting President Barack Obama as the offspring of chimps. Made to look like a family photo, Obama’s face has been edited onto the head of a baby chimp.

Here’s the picture in question:

Along with the picture was text that read, “Now you know why no birth certificate.”

The Orange County Register broke the story on April 16th, and the chairman of the Orange County Republican Party quickly called on Davenport to resign, denouncing her “despicable message” which “drips with racism.” Thankfully, other members of the Republican Party in Orange County, and California in general,  are coming out against Davenport’s email, but it doesn’t look like she is going to step down from her position. Davenport insists she is not racist, and that she didn’t even consider the racist tones that her email may have implied.

There are two issues here. Well, there are many issues here, but let’s focus on two. First, the email was apparently just a “birther”-style poke at the questions regarding President Obama’s birth place. If the creator of the email simply wanted to make fun of the fact that they don’t believe Obama was born in Hawaii, then why not superimpose the president’s face onto a human foreigner? Why did they make Obama not human? Can chimps even claim citizenship under a country? Now there’s  a question I thought I’d never ask. So what was the author trying to imply?

This brings us to the second issue: this email, whether intended or not, recalls the old stereotype among whites  that blacks are racially and intellectually inferior, less evolved than white people, and that they are ape-like in appearance and anatomy. Since I like to take current topics in the media and use them as an opportunity to start socio-historical discussions, I suggest we go beyond the current issue of Davenport’s racist email and actually look at the history behind this. I’d like to point you to an academic paper by Scott Plous (Professor of Psychology at Wesleyan University) and Tyrone Williams, but if you don’t feel like reading the entire paper, here is an excerpt:

“In the 18th and 19th centuries, many prominent whites in Europe and the U.S. regarded black people as mentally inferior, physically and culturally unevolved, and apelike in appearance (Ariel, 1867; Burmeister, 1853; Haeckel, 1876; Hunt 1863; Lawrence ,1819; Parker, 1878; Vogt, 1864; White, 1799). In fact, this view of blacks was so widely accepted that the entry for ‘Negro’ in the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1884, p. 316) stated authoritatively that the African race occupied ‘the lowest position of the evolutionary scale, thus affording the best material for the comparative study of the highest anthropoids and the human species.’ According to the Encylcopedia Britannica, these anthropoid features included among others: (a) ‘the abnormal length of the arm, which in the erect position sometimes reaches the knee-pan’; (b) ‘weight of brain, as indicating cranaial capacity, 35 ounces (highest gorilla 20, average European 45)’; (c) ‘short flat snub nose’; (d) ‘thick protruding lips’; (e) ‘exceedingly thick cranium’; (f) ‘short, black hair, eccentrically elliptical or almost flat in section, and distinctly wooly’; and (g) ‘thick epidermis’ (pp. 316-317).”

If you look at the sources you can see that the authors cite works from the 18th and 19th centuries, showing how far back this stereotype about African Americans as ape-like goes back in our country’s history. Only then it wasn’t really a stereotype, it was believed to be true.

In 2008, the the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper co-authored by professors from The Pennsylvania State University, Stanford University, and University of California, Berkeley. The paper was titled Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization, and Contemporary Consequences (2008, Vol. 94, No. 2, 292–306), and the abstract states:

“Historical representations explicitly depicting Blacks as apelike have largely disappeared in the United States, yet a mental association between Blacks and apes remains. Here, the authors demonstrate that U.S. citizens implicitly associate Blacks and apes. In a series of laboratory studies, the authors reveal how this association influences study participants’ basic cognitive processes and significantly alters their judgements in criminal justice contexts. Specifically, this Black–ape association alters visual perception and attention, and it increases endorsement of violence against Black suspects. In an archival study of actual criminal cases, the authors show that news articles written about Blacks who are convicted of capital crimes are more likely to contain ape-relevant language than news articles written about White convicts. Moreover, those who are implicitly portrayed as more apelike in these articles are more likely to be executed by the state than those who are not. The authors argue that examining the subtle persistence of specific historical representations such as these may not only enhance contemporary research on dehumanization, stereotyping, and implicit processes but also highlight common forms of discrimination that previously have gone unrecognized.”

The paper documents a study which tests if the historical “Black-ape association” persists today, and the result is a striking look at the commonality of  this association in our modern society. However, the associations that we make are oftentimes subconscious and therefore are not actively discussed in the media. As much as Americans likes to pretend that we are progressive in regards to racial issues, studies like the one mentioned above, and emails like the one sent by Davenport this week prove that we have not come as far as we like to believe. In his book Race Matters (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), Colonel West writes, “to engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American  society – flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes” (pg.  6). Indeed, West mentions several times throughout his book that the first step in relieving cultural, political, economic, and class-based struggles is recognizing or admitting that there is even a problem at all. I suppose some of our issues of race in America could be relieved if we collectively admit that racial oppression still exists. Unfortunately, a large population of our country refuses to confront this.

In many of my sociology courses as an undergraduate I was exposed to various images that were used in times past to explain the close relationship between apes and black people.

Illustration claiming to show how an African skull is closer in shape to that of an apes

1868: Great Chain of Being of Race

Even if Marilyn Davenport didn’t consciously see the racial tones in her email, the image of Obama as an ape was something that resonated with her, even if she can’t admit it.  In closing, I encourage everyone to reflect on the implications of Marilyn Davenport’s email, whether intended or not, with regards to historical racial stereotypes. I think race is a major issue in this country (to me, birtherism is plain and simple racism: white fat cats can’t cope with the fact that a black man made it to the White House), and I hope that this blog can help you engage in discussion!


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