PORTLAND — In the six years he has co-hosted a morning talk show on WGAN-AM, Mike Violette has never been as exasperated as he was on Friday.

Violette and his co-host, Ken Altshuler, wanted listeners to weigh in on whether a Casco selectwoman should resign for forwarding a racist e-mail about Michelle Obama.

The hosts took it as a given that a joke that compared the first lady to a monkey was racist.

But most of the listeners who called disagreed. Violette hung up on at least five callers because they made racist or rude comments.

“I was disappointed,” said Violette, who is the radio show’s conservative voice. “Maybe it says we aren’t there yet.”

The same attitudes were apparent on the Portland Press Herald’s Web site, where many of the 175 commentators defended the mockery.

Several said that comparing the first lady to a monkey was no different from political cartoons in which President George W. Bush was caricatured as a monkey.

Mary-Vienessa Fernandes, an African-American resident of Casco, said she is bewildered by the response, both in the media and among people she’s talked to.

Some of the people who saw the e-mail laughed, she said.

“I felt like I’m on a different planet,” she said. “It’s not funny. It’s racist. What if someone did that to your mother – if they altered her lips to make them resemble someone in the animal kingdom?”

For African-Americans, she said, jokes about monkeys are particularly painful because white people have compared blacks to monkeys for centuries in an effort to suggest blacks are subhuman.

Antonio Jackson, another African-American resident of Casco, jumped into the debate online to explain why he was upset.

“My take on the e-mail isn’t rooted in politics. I’m a conservative and frankly I don’t hold the policies of this administration in high regard,” he wrote. “That being said, the e-mail that was posted to me was undoubtedly racist. It implies whites were created by God and blacks evolved from monkeys.”

The issue surfaced at the Casco Board of Selectmen’s meeting on Tuesday.

Fernandes demanded the resignation of Selectwoman Barbara York, who used her private e-mail account last summer to forward the joke about Michelle Obama.

At the meeting, York didn’t name the recipient of the e-mail she forwarded. It was not a town official.
York also apologized to Fernandes.

The e-mail, which has circulated widely on the Internet, includes photos of the first lady and a monkey with similar facial expressions. It also features an attractive photo of Sarah Palin.

In the punch line, a father tells his daughter that Palin descended from Adam and Eve, and that Obama descended from monkeys.

The joke’s popularity on the Internet reflects a new cultural phenomenon: the blending of racism, right-wing politics and extremely conservative Christian theology, known as the “Christian identity movement,” said Stephen Wessler, executive director of the Portland-based Center for Preventing Hate.

The movement’s followers believe whites are the “true identity” of God’s chosen people of the Hebrew Scriptures and are descendants of Adam and Eve. People of color are considered “mud people” because they are the offspring of beasts.

Wessler said the election of President Obama in 2008, combined with anxiety caused by the deep recession and high levels of immigration, apparently have led to a rise in racism in the United States against blacks and Latinos.

Over the past several years, incidents of racist jokes in schools in Maine have increased, Wessler said.

“There are high levels of very disturbing racial jokes in schools all across Maine,” said Wessler, who works in schools and institutions to reduce fear and promote respect.

Many of the jokes involve lynching or sexual degradation. He said students tell the jokes because they want laughs from their peers.

His message to them: “The fact that some people think it’s funny is not the point. The point is, how cavalier do you want to be about things that hurt other people?”

Racist jokes are dangerous, he said, because they are the first step in the process of dehumanizing people.

Wessler said people find it easier to commit violence if they believe a victim is not fully human.

Casco’s Board of Selectmen will meet on April 6 to decide whether to censure York. She did not return a phone message Friday.
Wessler said York needs to show the public she understands that the joke is deeply hurtful and racist.

At the same time, he said, people need to treat York with some respect.

“It’s a mistake to say she’s a bad person,” Wessler said. “She has a whole life she has lived. I assume in her life she has done many wonderful things. This does not define her.”

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

[email protected]

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