Commentary: Tennessee hospitality official's e-mail shows tenacity of racism

On March 5 in Washington, D.C., first lady Michelle Obama participated in a soccer clinic to publicize her "Let's Move" campaign to fight childhood obesity.

Kentucky is one of several states with a high incidence of childhood obesity. The only thing we have to brag about is that Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama are worse.

The first lady is trying to help all of our children.

I wanted to point that out because about the same time that same day, people in Nashville were hearing about an e-mail message sent by Walt Baker, the chief executive of the Tennessee Hospitality Association.

That e-mail message was not meant to help the first lady, however, as much as she hopes to help Tennessee children.

On March 4, Baker forwarded an e-mail in which Michelle Obama is compared with Tarzan's little simian friend, Cheeta.

Accompanied by a picture of Cheeta and Obama, whose lips are pursed, was this written message: "I was at the store yesterday, and I ran into Tarzan! I asked him how it was going and if he was into anymore movie? He told me that he could no longer make any more movies as he had severe arthritis in both shoulders and could no longer swing from vine to tree. I asked how Jane was doing, he told me she was in bad shape, in a nursing home, has Alzheimer's and no longer recognizes anyone, how sad. I asked about Boy, and he told me that Boy had gone to the big city, got hooked up with bad women, drugs, alcohol, and the only time he heard from him was if he was in trouble or needed something. I asked about Cheeta, he beamed and said she was doing good, had married a lawyer and now lived in the White House!"

If comparing the first African-American first lady to a monkey wasn't funny enough, the e-mail took swipes at older people, those suffering with Alzheimer's and young people who have been caught up in drugs and alcohol.

It was meant as fun, Baker first said. A joke. Political humor.

Later, when the criticism began to fly from several of the recipients and the mayor of Nashville, Baker apologized. Sort of.

It was the "if it offended anyone" apology.

The Tennessee Hospitality Association, according to its Web site, "is the advocacy voice, as well as the source for information and education for the lodging and dining establishments in Tennessee."

Knowing that the head of such an organization thinks comparing Michelle Obama to a chimpanzee is OK doesn't make me want to lay my head down in Tennessee.

Apparently the president of the publicly funded Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, Butch Spyridon, thought the same thing.

He not issued an apology for the "offensive" e-mail, but he also said, "As a recipient of the e-mail, I am embarrassed for both my organization and myself. The content is deeply hurtful to all in our city and beyond. The attitudes expressed in the e-mail are both appalling and unacceptable, and are not shared or condoned in any way by the NCVB or by me personally."

Now that is an apology.

Spyridon then went one step further, just in case folks would misinterpret his feelings on the matter. He cancelled a $50,000 contract with Baker's marketing agency, Mercatus Communications, which promoted Nashville's new convention center.

The THA board was supposed to have met Monday, with some people calling for Baker's resignation.

Whatever happened to the post-racial America that President Barack Obama's election was supposed to usher in?

Most people realize that comparing black people to animals began with Reconstruction, when the depiction of blacks changed from justifying slavery because blacks were too childlike and innocent to care for themselves to characterizing blacks as animals justifying inhumane treatment. We weren't like real human beings in either case.

Of course, the first defense for comparing Obama to a monkey is that President George W. Bush was often depicted the same way. Check out YouTube and some political cartoons that were published during his presidency.

Fine. Call Barack Obama a monkey. But, last I heard, Michelle Obama is not the president.

Why is Michelle such a lightning rod for such attacks couched as jokes? Isn't she just as human, just as much a woman as Laura Bush and other first ladies? Or are black women still less than human?

On Sunday evening, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave its first best director Oscar to a woman. I heard people throughout the preceding week saying that if she won, it would change things for women in Hollywood.

If having the first black president and first lady was supposed to change racism in America, then Hollywood celebrating the first female director won't mean a thing.