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Even if not racist, Obama-chimpanzee email wasn't funny

Orange County woman's Obama-chimpanzee email wasn't just a political swipe, or a single thoughtless moment. It reflects a demeaning mindset, a collective confirmation of stereotypes, openly shared.

April 23, 2011|Sandy Banks
  • Orange County GOP Central Committee member Marilyn Davenport said about the cartoon she circulated: "I simply found it amusing regarding the character of Obama and all the questions surrounding his origin of birth."
Orange County GOP Central Committee member Marilyn Davenport said about… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Marilyn Davenport might be a racist. Or a moron. Or just a dotty old lady with a warped sense of humor, and a scant understanding of history.

For whatever reason, Davenport didn't seem to realize the potential for offense in a cartoon she circulated depicting President Obama as the offspring of chimpanzees. It was just a joke, shared among friends — many of them, like her, leaders of Orange County's Republican Party.

"I simply found it amusing regarding the character of Obama and all the questions surrounding his origin of birth," Davenport told the OC Weekly, which broke the story last weekend. "In no way did I even consider the fact he's half-black when I sent out the email."

The cartoon featured Obama's face superimposed on a chimp, flanked by chimpanzee parents. The caption: Now you know why – No birth certificate!

She considered it "political satire," a knee-slapper for the birther crowd.

County GOP leader Scott Baugh considered it "dripping with racism and in very poor taste." He wants her to resign from her elected post on the county's central committee.

But Davenport has refused to step down. Her constituents want her to stay, she said. Instead, she's cued up the standard "I'm sorry to anyone who may have been offended…'' apology, larded with Scripture this time: "I would never do anything intentionally to harm or berate others regardless of ethnicity," she announced at a news conference. "I'm an imperfect Christian gal who does her best to live a godly life.... I ask for your forgiveness for my unwise behavior."

It was unwise to pass the email along. It makes her political party look bad. But she's still not sure what was wrong about it. "I guess I offended the black people," she said, before quoting from James 3:2 and Luke 17:3, about trespass and repentance.

"I humbly receive your rebuke. I will not repeat this error."

She will still laugh.

But she'll click delete next.

I'm not going to question Davenport's sincerity. I don't need her resignation. I don't care how many Bible verses she crams into her mea culpas.

The cartoon that she found so humorous — so funny she had to share it with friends — makes me sick to my stomach when I see it. It hurts in a way that rebukes can't clear and public outrage hasn't soothed.

I don't see this as a political swipe, or a single thoughtless moment. It reflects a mindset, a collective confirmation of stereotypes, openly shared. Short of racist but beyond demeaning just the same.

Let's say we take Davenport at her word. She had no idea how offensive it was, just as Kobe Bryant didn't intend to offend when he unleashed an ugly double epithet in a courtside tiff with a referee.

Bryant didn't mean it as a slur against gays; it's just something guys sometimes say when they're mad. Darn that camera for catching him at it. And Davenport didn't mean to offend the blacks. It was an inside joke until some "coward" in her inner circle leaked the email to the rest of us.

But when you're part of the group being maligned, one crude comment or act can unlock that subconscious Pandora's box, resurrecting a lifetime of accumulated slurs and slights.

The attitude on display here — everybody yukking it up at the black man's expense — makes me feel foolish about feeling so optimistic: "Can we all get along? Sure we can!"

When I saw that image of Obama, with his chimpanzee parents, I felt suddenly, inexplicably ashamed. Reminded that no matter how high in life I climb, in some eyes I'm still swinging vine to vine.

Civil rights activist Najee Ali doesn't think Davenport is a racist. "I believe she's a nice woman, but she's stuck in the past.... We'd like to meet and explain our pain, and why we were so offended by her actions." That's why he's leading a protest planned for today outside Davenport's Fullerton home.

"This has created a buzz all over the country," he said. "Even white people are embarrassed by this."

Davenport has her defenders, like central committee colleague Tim Whitacre, who coached Davenport during interviews this week.

He's not embarrassed about the chimpanzee email, he told the Times. "We send emails back and forth — motivational, fun, this and that," he said. This was nothing more than "a lighthearted stab over the birther question."

Stab is right. But lighthearted only if you're thickheaded.

Even right-wing radio hosts get that. That was clear from Davenport's thrashing this week on KFI's "John and Ken" show.

"I find it hard to believe," John Kobylt told her, "that you didn't pick up on the racial reference. You're not 15 years old.... That's just impossible to believe. You were alive during the civil rights movement, the Jim Crow era."

There was something oddly comforting about listening to Kobylt deliver a history lesson. "You must realize the connotation of putting the president's face on a chimp's body," he said. "It's the oldest racist joke out there. It goes back centuries, the idea that blacks are subhuman because they are closely related to chimpanzees and apes."

It was the "central scientific thesis" used to justify slavery, he said. "Marilyn Davenport may be the last person on the planet who's not aware of the connection."

Davenport just kept insisting she had no idea the cartoon was racially insensitive and insulting. "Inasmuch as I'm not prejudiced, I really don't think in those terms," she said. "I don't think of Obama as a black person."

Just our president. From Africa.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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