The Disturbing “Monkey Business” of U.S. Black-White Race Relations

Representations of black people as animals is both a past and present manifestation of the United States’ complicated history with race.


I was recently presenting a black history program, “Animalization of Black Bodies: A History Lesson,” for a student group at my university. At the same time, just across town at a high school basketball game, white male students were taunting a black player on the opposing team with chest pounding, arm scratching and monkey sounds. I was not surprised by the reality of this deliberate racial insensitivity by white students, though I am fascinated by their boldness.

In the same way, I wasn’t surprised that six white students at my local Arizona neighborhood high school spelled out the n-word as a human puzzle just over a year ago, creating a national controversy. Indeed, I know well that racism has not passed over this allegedly post-racial generation of youth. This particular way of expressing American racism, by dehumanizing black people, has a long and pronounced history, whether on high school, college or university campuses; among local or national government officials; or even among police.

This animalization of black people has its roots in American slavery. Robert Guillaume, in the documentary Story of a People (1993), explains:

To justify slavery, black Americans had to be dehumanized. A moral and legal framework to support slavery was constructed at the same time. The distortion of the black image begins here. If it is believed that a man is inferior, subhuman, it becomes easy to treat him as a pet, a toy, an object of comic relief, a crazed lower animal who must be controlled and ruled.

Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) underscores this naming and treatment of enslaved people as chattel:

We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses and men, cattle and women, pigs, and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being and were all subject to the same narrow examination.

The very presence of the Obama family in the White House these last eight years created a proliferation of derogatory images of and references to them—including older daughter Malia—and other black people as monkeys, chimpanzees and apes. Such perceptions of black people as less than human even show up in research: White nurses and nursing students do not believe black patients experience the same levels of pain as white patients; they are thereby more apt to give pain medicines to white patients than black ones.

The list goes on and on. Former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch is referred to by the nickname “Beast Mode.” LeBron James’ 2008 Vogue cover with Gisele Bündchen connects him with King Kong. Ellen DeGeneres’ meme about running her errands while on speed runner Usain Bolt’s back ignores the history of enslaved black people being treated as beasts of burden. Serena Williams, according to one sports commentator, is more likely to appear in National Geographic than Sports Illustrated. Entertainers Leslie Jones and Normani Kordei have received racist taunts in the form of being imagined as or called “monkey” or “ape.” Even the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not escape being called a “filthy, abnormal animal” by the FBI in a 1964 letter begrudging his civil rights leadership.

Add incidents, headlines, illustrations and images of black people as primates to historical pseudo-scientific efforts to equate black people to animals, and you challenge the notion of a supposed 21st-century post-racial United States head on. Such is the case with former Charleston Daily Mail columnist Don Surber, who described Ferguson, Missouri, teen Michael Brown as an “animal” that had to be “put down.”

It could be President Obama imagined as a chimpanzee in a 2009 New York Post cartoon about his stimulus package, Serena Williams compared to the racing horse American Pharoah or Saartjie Barrtman being paraded around Europe as a “freak show.” It could be the depiction of Little Black Sambo, who whets the appetites of three tigers in the popular 1899 children’s book by Helen Bannerman, or the reality of black babies used as alligator bait. New or old, real or imagined, these examples and countless others show that U.S. race relations inextricably connect the past with the present.

Today’s racism is not this overt Jim Crow sign from the 1940s and 1950s: “No Niggers/No Jews/No Dogs.” Nor is racism just about calling someone the n-word. Racial bias, racial misrepresentation, racial assault and racial mockery all factor into American racism. Knowing American history, then, is better understanding Malcolm X’s pronouncement, “History is a people’s memory, and without a memory, [humans are] demoted to lower animals.”

Lester is Foundation Professor of English and the founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.