The terms “closet racist” and “public official” should never be synonymous in Maine.
That’s why Casco Selectman Barbara York should resign after revelations Wednesday that she forwarded a racist joke and photos comparing Michelle Obama to a chimpanzee to other town residents from her private e-mail account.
The Portland Press Herald reported Thursday that a small group of town residents confronted York and other selectmen Tuesday night at the board’s regular meeting.
Mary-Vienessa Fernandes, a Casco resident of African-American descent, told the board that she found a printed copy of York’s e-mail taped to her door, and that she found it racist and degrading.
Another African-American resident, Antonio Jackson, said he was “trembling all over” after seeing the cartoon, and that he “couldn’t believe that something like that was happening in 2010,” according to the Press Herald.
Dehumanizing people for their differences — whether they be ethnic, religious or racial — has been the bigot’s tool for centuries. There is a long and sordid history of blacks in America being portrayed as apes, baboons, gorillas and chimps.
The images have been used since slavery to stir fear in white people or to make African-Americans appear less intelligent.
Last February, the New York Post ran a cartoon showing police officers with smoking guns standing over a marauding chimpanzee they had just shot dead. “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill,” said the caption.
The cartoon was loosely tied to a story two days before about a violent chimp gunned down by police in Stamford, Conn., but the dead monkey on the ground was definitely meant to be the president of the United States.
The Post later apologized for the cartoon.
As Americans, we should encourage a vigorous public debate, and there is no doubt that partisan hostility is running high since the election of our first African-American president, Barack Obama.
That rancor came to a boiling point recently when Democrats in the U.S. House passed health care reform over vocal Republican opposition.
In several ugly incidents, racial slurs were hurled at black members of Congress and one black member was spat upon on the steps of the Capitol.
Several members of Congress had their district offices vandalized, and a propane gas line was cut at a home mistakenly reported to belong to a congressman who voted for the health care bill.
At least 10 members of Congress received threatening phone calls.
To their credit, Republican congressional leaders have denounced these acts. And, to be fair, they have been committed by a very slim minority of protesters.
Yet, as the Casco incident shows, bigotry exists everywhere, even in Maine, and it is up to right-minded Mainers to denounce it at every turn.
While no one, including Jackson, can prevent an offensive e-mail from showing up in their inbox, we all have a choice about how we respond — either delete that e-mail or give it our tacit approval by forwarding it to others.
York made her choice, and she now must live with the consequences.