White Americans have long compared blacks to monkeys. It did not start with the New York Post cartoon last week but goes back hundreds of years. In fact even scientists once assumed that blacks were half way between monkeys and white people.
Even in the case of the Obamas it did not start with that cartoon. In May 2008 Curious George T-shirts came out showing a monkey eating a banana with the words “Obama in ’08″ under it. On the Internet there are pictures comparing Michelle Obama to a monkey.
But so what? George Bush was also compared to a monkey and he is white. He was called the Simpering Chimp. There was even a website about it with pictures of Bush next to pictures of chimpanzees to show how much they look alike.
And anyway, these are just pictures meant for a few laughs. No one takes them seriously. Right?
That is what UCLA professor Dr Phillip Atiba Goff was wondering. Do white people deep down think of black people as monkeys? And even if they do, does it make any difference to black people or is it harmless?
What he found shocked and saddened him. He thought white people do have this general idea of blacks as being kind of like monkeys, but he had no idea how deep-seated it was.
He found that when white people think of black people they tend to think of monkeys – and when they think of monkeys they tend to think of black people. And, even worse, it makes violence against them by the police more acceptable.
This was true even for those who grew up after Jim Crow and for those who said they did not know that blacks have been compared to monkeys in the past.
In his test he showed his subjects pictures of white people and black people and then pictures of monkeys and wild cats that were hard to make out. He found that people who had just seen a picture of a black person could make out the monkey pictures better. That did not work with pictures of white people and monkeys or anyone with wild cats.
He also found out that when subjects were made to think of monkeys and then shown police violence against a black person they found it more acceptable. That was not true for violence against whites.
He also looked at news reports from 1979 to 1999 of court cases in Philadelphia where the person on trial could be sentenced to death. He found that the more news reports used expressions like “urban jungle” and “aping the suspect’s behaviour”, the more likely the person would be sentenced to death – but only if he was black. If he was white then such language did not seem to matter.
Dr Goff is working with police departments across America to look at their records and training to see if their training can be changed to make unnecessary violence against blacks less common, thereby saving lives and, at the same time, making their own policing better.