*The racial taunt by North Korean officials of President Obama as a monkey was no real surprise. The regime has blasted Obama before with border line racial jabs. Obama is the most visible and inviting target for North Korea to single out for blame and vitriol after its bare bones internet and mobile phone networks were disrupted for a few days. North Korean officials apparently saw this as retaliation for allegedly hacking Sony picture executive’s internal emails.
It’s hardly the first time that some official or official source in North Korea has gotten caught with its racial dirty linen waving. Last May, the Korean Central News Agency drew fire when it lambasted Obama with the admonition to “live with a group of monkeys in the world’s largest African natural zoo.” North Korean officials deny that there is any explicit intent to racially demean Obama. They contend that the criticism is simply part of the ongoing war of words between two countries. The verbal war is the outcrop of the deep suspicion, distrust, antagonism, and confrontation that’s characterized relations between the U.S. and North Korea for decades.
It is true that North Korea has leveled choice verbal derogatory broadsides on foreign leaders it considers hostile overtly to the regime. A prime example is its attack last August on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. It called him a “wolf donning the mask of sheep.” This jab at Kerry was in response to Kerry allegedly calling for peace at the same moment the U.S staged its annual military drills with South Korea. The wolf characterization was harsh but that’s an image that’s more in keeping with a not uncommon vilification of someone who’s seen as predatory. North Korean officials have also called South Korean President Park Geun-hye a prostitute. This too was insulting and demeaning. But that’s also a common usage epitaph often hurled at supposedly on the make politicians.
These types of insults no matter how disreputable and loathsome at least make some political sense. The continual reference to Obama as a monkey is something else. It shouldn’t surprise, though, that North Korea would latch onto that image. They are just following playing on the stereotype that the pack of race baiting websites, chat rooms, some college frat parties, and student websites has frequently used in assorted offbeat, crude, vile cartoons to ridicule Obama and First Lady Michelle and African-Americans. The racial tie to that depiction was tested in 2007.
Then Penn State researchers conducted six separate studies and found that many Americans still link blacks with apes and monkeys. Many of them were young and had absolutely no knowledge of the vicious stereotyping of blacks of years past. Their findings with the provocative title “Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization and Contemporary Consequences,” in the February 2008 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was published by the American Psychological Association.
The overwhelming majority of the participants in the studies bristled at the faintest hint that they had any racial bias. But the animal savagery image and blacks was very much on their minds. The researchers found that participants — and that included even those with no stated prejudices or knowledge of the historical images — were quicker to associate blacks with apes than they were to associate whites with apes.
This was not simply a dry academic exercise. The animal association and blacks has had devastating real life consequences. In hundreds of news stories from 1979 to 1999 the Philadelphia Inquirer was much more likely to describe African Americans than Whites convicted of capital crimes with ape-relevant language, such as “barbaric,” “beast,” “brute,” “savage” and “wild.” And jurors in criminal cases were far more likely to judge blacks more harshly than whites, and regard them and their crimes as savage, bestial, and heinous, and slap them with tougher sentences than whites.
North Korea would be especially susceptible to trade in this type of crude race baiting, and name calling given its self-imposed isolation from global discourse and its near paranoid xenophobic view of itself as somehow an ethnically pure nation. This notion is deeply tinged by race and racial chauvinism. This, and the regime’s political insularity, inevitably instills in the regime an us versus them fortress wall to keep out anything that sullies its notion of its superiority. North Korean leaders have played hard on this for decades as a political serving mechanism to insure domestic control and compliance with its brutal policies.
There was some talk that former NBA player Dennis Rodman’s much criticized tour of North Korea earlier in 2014 with a team of mostly black former pro basketball players might dent the regime’s racial insularity. There is no evidence it did. It gave the regime a momentary PR boost, but it was passing. An apologetic Rodman got the message and vowed not to return to the country. It wouldn’t have mattered. Two months later it branded Obama as a monkey and now it has repeated the slur. For North Korea this is simply racial business as usual.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.
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