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Curious George And The Men In The Pointy White Hats

Well, if anyone had any illusions about Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy helping the nation get over its racial divide — especially if they thought it might finally bury the old racism that has stained the nation’s history — the past few weeks should finally lay that to rest.

As Glennzilla points out, it’s now evidently become acceptable for mainstream news organizations like The Washington Post to distribute "white supremacist cant about Obama’s ‘blood equity’ and ‘heritage’ " (in the form of a truly execrable Kathleen Parker column) for popular consumption to the rest of the nation’s papers. We’ve got assassination jokes and a panoply of dog whistles and race-baiting campaign ads.

It’s all indicative of a shifting national mood that seems to find open expressions of racism increasingly acceptable and even normative — thanks, no doubt, to a decade and half’s worth of right-wing yammerers essentially defending racism as being merely "politically incorrect." It’s manifested itself in Democratic voting patterns as well, and is embodied in the racism encountered by young Obama campaigners while on the campaign trail.

And then there is the bar in Georgia selling "Curious George" shirts with "Obama ’08" as the script:

The T-shirts are being peddled by Marietta bar owner Mike Norman at his Mulligan’s Bar and Grill in Cobb County. They show a picture of Curious Georgie peeling a banana, with the words "Obama ’08" underneath.

Rick Blake, a spokesman for publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which owns Curious George, said Wednesday that the company didn’t authorize the use of the character’s image, but hasn’t been in touch with anybody selling or manufacturing the shirts.

"We find it offensive and obviously utterly out of keeping with the value Curious George represents," Blake said. "We’re monitoring the situation and weighing our options with respect to legal action."

Norman has said he got the T-shirts from someone in Arkansas. He started selling them at his bar — known for the provocative, ultra-conservative political slogans often posted on signs out front — in April but said he has no plans to mass market them.

The sales came to light this week when a loose coalition of local groups called a protest of the T-shirts.

About a dozen protestors rallied against the shirts Tuesday afternoon, condemning them as racist and asking Norman to stop selling them.

Norman acknowledged the imagery’s Jim Crow roots but said he sees nothing wrong with depicting a prominent African-American as a monkey.

"We’re not living in the (19)40’s," he said. "Look at him . . . the hairline, the ears — he looks just like Curious George."

Comparing blacks to apes has been a time-tested favorite of the racist right, of course. It was a staple of both Nazi propaganda (Hitler called blacks "born half-ape") and the Klan over the years (a Klan speaker in Alabama, for instance, once warned: "Black apes in our high schools and elementary schools with our superior White children and forced them to mix. And the day a Black ape lays his Black paw on a little White girl, the Ku Klux Klan will move in and trim that paw back.")


Here’s a classic example: This was a flyer that was circulated around the Bellevue, Wash., area by someone from Matthew Hale’s then-organization, the National Socialist White Americans’ Party back in 1995. (Hale, you may recall, gained later notoriety by becoming the leader of the white-supremacist World Church of the Creator, eventually earning jail time for plotting to have a judge assassinated.)

The "Curious George" shirts are more than a mere dog whistle: they’re an outright resurrection of the ugly racism that was commonplace in America a century ago. No, we’re not living in the 1940s; but the right — including the Kathleen Parkers of the world and their enablers — sure wish we were doing so again.

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David Neiwert

David Neiwert

David Neiwert is the managing editor of Firedoglake. He's a freelance journalist based in Seattle and the author/editor of the blog Orcinus. He also is the author of Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community (Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, June 2005), as well as Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America (Palgrave/St. Martin's, 2004), and In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999, WSU Press). His reportage for on domestic terrorism won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000.