Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lessons Written in DNA

There is no question that the New York Post cartoon depicting two policemen shooting a chimpanzee while one says to the other, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill" is blatantly racist and sickening.

The history of racism in this country is vile in the extreme. Although the New York Post cartoon is horribly offensive, it should come as a surprise to no one. Racism is deeply ingrained in our national psyche, and we still have a great deal of work to do to exorcise its demons from our midst.

But there is more to this image than racism. Underlying the cartoon and all the other efforts to conflate blacks and apes is the assumption of human superiority and ape inferiority. These assumptions are even more deeply ingrained than racism.

An editorial in the New York Times yesterday by Brent Staples chronicles the use of the ape as a racist invective throughout American history.
The effort to dehumanize black people by characterizing them as apes is central to our national history. . . .

By defining Negroes not as human beings but as beasts, the nation rationalized subjugation and cruelty—and justified laws that stripped them of basic human rights. The case for segregation itself rested heavily on the assertion that animal origins made Negroes feebleminded, smelly and intolerably offensive to white sensibilities.
In point of fact, we all have "animal origins." We are, indeed, all animals, and the chimpanzee is our closest evolutionary relative. You would think that that knowledge would garner the chimpanzee some respect, especially as we are so fond of seeing ourselves as vastly superior to "beasts." But we cling to the notion that we are set apart in every respect from other animals.

It is time for us humans to view ourselves with a modicum of humility. Of course we are unique among our fellow creatures, but the same could be said for every other species on the planet. Each has its place and its special brilliance, if only we have the eyes to see it. In our planet's complex ecology, none is superior or inferior or of greater or lesser value. Not only do we share most of our DNA with chimpanzees, but we also share much of it with protozoa, plankton, trees, and cows. We are one, inexorably intertwined and interrelated.

It is not only time for us to recognize that "race" is a notion entirely fabricated by humans, but so is the notion of human superiority. We are not the be-all and end-all of evolution. We are one among many, each with our own special brilliance and value.

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