Cartoons: Teaching Racism

CNN is reporting a story out of Houston, Texas about a controversy involving a cartoon character called “Memín Pinguin,” that some find racist and others suggest that it is harmless. For example, Javier Salas, quoted in the CNN articles says, “We grew up reading, learning and educating ourselves,” with the Memín character. This is not the first time the cartoon character has generated controversy; just three years ago, a series of Mexican stamps honoring Memín set off protests by African-American leaders and the stamps were discontinued. Racism is not a “boogie-man” as some suggest, but rather it seems to be a core value, not only in American society but in Mexico as well.

Writing about “Mexico’s Race Problem” three years ago (around the time of the earlier Memín controversy), distinguished scholar Claudio Lomnitz writes that “Mexican opinion in response to the Memín affair predictably displayed a sense of superiority on racial issues.” Lomnitz goes on to criticize this attitude, “…as if Mexican racism had long been taken care of, and as if whatever remains of it were somehow less harmful because things are worse in the United States.” Indeed, the values that the Memín cartoon character teaches are core values. As with all the important narratives we tell them again and again in our cultural artifacts, such as cartoons. Here in the U.S., racism is built into Disney films and cartoons, such as this clever video mashup illustrates (5:00):

Even though some of these Disney cartoons are decades old, most of them continue to live on in DVD and on cable, thus ensuring the perpetuation of racism intergenerationally.

A White Man Does the Right Thing: The Courage to Stand against Racism

The Raleigh News and Observer has an interesting story about L. F. Eason III, a white North Carolina state manager with a distinguished record of state employment, who was forced to retire (in reality, fired) because he would not allow the employees at his laboratory to lower the flag to honor one of the most infamous of the white-racist advocates ever to serve in the U.S. Senate, the unrepentant anti-civil-rights advocate, Senator Jesse Helms:

Eason, a 29-year veteran of the state Department of Agriculture, instructed his staff at a small Raleigh lab not to fly the U.S. or North Carolina flags at half-staff Monday, as called for in a directive to all state agencies by Gov. Mike Easley. When a superior ordered the lab to follow the directive, Eason decided to retire rather than pay tribute to Helms. After several hours’ delay, one of Eason’s employees hung the flags at half-staff.

His reasons have been made clear in interviews and emails:

“Regardless of any executive proclamation, I do not want the flags at the North Carolina Standards Laboratory flown at half staff to honor Jesse Helms any time this week,” Eason wrote just after midnight, according to e-mail messages released in response to a public records request. He told his staff that he did not think it was appropriate to honor Helms because of his “doctrine of negativity, hate, and prejudice” and his opposition to civil rights bills and the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

This act of courage against the country’s and the state’s long history racial oppression was regarded as ordinary “failure to obey orders,” that is, insubordination:

In a string of e-mail messages with his superiors, Eason was told he could either lower the flags or retire effective immediately. Though he’s only 51, Eason chose to retire, although he pleaded several times to be allowed to stay at the lab.

The white guys who run the North Carolina state bureaucracy just could not understand his principled stand against the extremism and negativity that Senator Helms has long been the poster boy for. These North Carolina bureaucrats seem to be taking the same position that Adolf Eichmann took in his trial for his role in the Nazi Holocaust—that a lower ranking bureaucrat should just “obey orders” and do his/her job no matter how irrational and anti-human those orders may be.

Helms has been widely celebrated around here in North Carolina, absurdly so in my judgment. Few here seem willing to do an open and sustained critique of Helms’s very negative legacy on racial and other oppressions. Clearly, a long and outrageous record of anti-gay, anti-civil-rights statements and actions trumps a principled stand again racism and homophobia in this alleged “land of the free and the home of the brave.”