WASHINGTON — To the issues dividing Americans by race, add the publication of satirical cartoons about religion.
A survey released by the Pew Research Center this week found that Americans, by more than 2-to-1, believe it’s OK to publish cartoons poking fun of religion, such as those printed by the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. But that seemingly overwhelming support for the right to make fun came largely from white respondents to the survey, the organization reported. A plurality of non-whites, just shy of a majority, said they were opposed to such satire.
Why that divide exists has much to do with the way the country’s dominant culture has treated minority groups over the years, say experts on race and religion. No one likes being the butt of jokes — and if that’s been your role in society, you’re more sensitive to the offense, they said.
“Non-white Americans might be more sensitive than whites to negative media images of Islam (and religious diversity in general) because they understand how it feels to believe, rightly or wrongly, that one’s community is under attack by the media and mainstream society,” said Henry Goldschmidt, director of education programs at Interfaith Center of New York, a nonprofit organization that promotes communications among different faith, ethnic and cultural traditions.
Howard Winant, director of the Center for New Racial Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, offered a similar assessment, though he was skeptical the poll adequately probed the “attitudes of people of color, many of whom have very appropriate grievances with the U.S. mass media.”
“They are responding to the echoes in the cartoons of other, longstanding hurts and grievances that are very real,” he said in an email.
Pew conducted its survey Jan. 22-25, two weeks after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris that left 12 people dead. It found that of the 1,003 adults who answered the poll, 76 percent were aware of the attack. Of those, 60 percent said it was acceptable that Charlie Hebdo had published cartoons that made fun of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam or both — the reason the assailants cited for the killings. The supporters cited freedom of speech and the press in backing the right to publish the cartoons. Some noted that Charlie Hebdo also made fun of the pope and other religions, according to Pew.
But that margin of support was largely among the white respondents, 70 percent of whom backed publication of the cartoons.
Among non-white respondents, disapproval of publishing was expressed by 48 percent. Only 37 percent said they approved.
“This tells me that people are less likely to support the Charlie Hebdo cartoons if they feel marginalized or oppressed as a member of a minority community,” said Goldschmidt.
Pew’s director of journalism research, Amy Mitchell, said that the poll’s non-white respondents included blacks, Hispanics of any race and others, but she said the sample sizes of individual groups were not large enough to separate, for example, African-Americans from Hispanics. Pew, she said, doesn’t attempt to identify groups with fewer than 100 responses. The total number of non-whites who took part in the survey was 192.
Religious affiliation didn’t seem to be a factor in support for the cartoons. Protestants, Catholics and those who said they were unaffiliated supported the cartoons’ publications by similar rates, ranging from 59 percent to 62 percent.
But Goldschmidt found that part of the survey unrepresentative of the full picture of religious diversity in America.
“Keep in mind that ‘Protestants, Catholics and the unaffiliated’ more or less means ‘Christians, Christians, and people raised in Christian homes,’” he said. “I’d be far more interested to learn what American Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus, etc., think of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.”
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The survey also found that men were more supportive than women of publishing Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, by 67 percent to 52 percent, and that Republicans were more supportive than Democrats, 70 percent to 55 percent.
Support also was strongest among the more educated. Publishing the cartoons was supported by about 69 percent of respondents with college degrees, while only 48 percent of those with only a high school education were supportive.
UC Santa Barbara’s Winant cautioned that the fact the cartoons offend some people should not be seen as an excuse for censorship. “The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and political satire like Colbert’s late/lamented show,” he wrote, referring to Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report,” whose final episode aired in December, “derive their power in some measure from their ability to offend, which is directly related to the positions of those who are satirized.”
And he noted that whites also complain about what they think are unfair media portrayals.
“It is notable how easily many whites … argue that bringing up racial injustice (say in policing practices) is itself racist,” he said. “In such cases, when the arrow of criticism strikes nearer to one’s own flesh, arguments about free speech become scarcer.”
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