Thursday, May 7, 2009

The White House, The Black Prez, The Watermelon Patch and The Resignations

For the second time this year, a high-ranking government official has lost his job after forwarding a racist email to his colleagues.

In February, the mayor of a California town quit his position. This week, North Carolina's governor asked for and received the resignation of the state's top liquor regulator, who had forwarded a photo illustration depicting the White House South Lawn converted into a watermelon patch and captioned "There goes the neighborhood…"

"E-mails and images of this nature are offensive and unacceptable," Gov. Beverly Perdue said in a statement.

Los Alamitas Mayor Dean Grose's caption read, "No Easter egg hunt this year."

Now if you're black and laughing at these punch lines join the club. Tacky, in poor taste and racist to boot, like it or not the joke is funny whether you're a 44 fan or not. (And if you are black and laughing can you genuinely be offended and amused at the same time?)

This cartoon has been floating around the internet ever since President Obama won the election and I'll bet plenty of black folks have been on the sending or receiving end of this same email.

The problem with emailing this cartoon illustrates a dilemma that has bedeviled computer users since we started communicating via the internet; the separation of the public from the private message.

When using Outlook I always employ one rule before sending out email: would I be comfortable if someone stood in the middle of the city hall courtyard reading it while shouting at the top of their lungs? If not, then I reconsider before sending it out, usually by softening the tome of the message.

At the same time, I'm very cognizant as to the email's audience; I simply don't routinely forward messages to my list of the usual suspects. Because that's where a lack of judgment can lead to a job loss, which in Alcoholic Beverage Commission chair Douglas A. Fox's case, evaporated a six-figure salary.

And yes, I've been guilty of sending a racy email or two (or three or four) to work colleagues, but you've got to be careful with who you can trust and with what. And who can and who cannot take a joke.

I'd bet a dollar to a doughnut that the lobbyist who called the guv's attention to Fox's email was white (another conversation). And Fox, bless him, might have been a civil-rights marcher and NAACP member in the past, or perhaps joined a certain secret society that wears pointy white hats; regardless, his stance on racial issues isn't the point in this instance.

The reality is that as a public official Fox - and Grose - can't send out potentially offensive email like this, just as he wouldn't (or shouldn't) place the same cartoon in an envelope embossed with a work address and toss it in the snail mail.

But the internet makes such transgressions oh-so-conveniently-easy to carry out before common sense takes over. In Grose's case, the cartoon was sent from his personal email to a black businesswoman and volunteer he serves with on a community board; he has since apologized, explaining that he didn't know about the sterotypical connection between black folks and watermelon. (Huh?)

Like the Facebook photo of the college student chugging from a beer bong, smoking a joint or showing a wee bit too much skin that pops up when the human resource department does a google search, I suspect we'll continue seeing examples of internet dos and don'ts as people sort out netiquette.

But do you really need to take a $110,000 hit to figure it out?


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