First Lady Michelle Obama
Walt Baker fired from post in the aftermath of message which compared Michelle Obama to chimpanzee.
By Ronald W. Weathersby
Former Tennessee Hospitality Association (THA) CEO Walt Baker acknowledged last week that he sent an email to several individuals including elected officials, a high ranking aide to Mayor Karl Dean, several high-ranking quasi-public officials and, journalists last week which compared the First lady to Tarzan’s sidekick Cheetah.
Shortly after the matter became public Metro Councilman-at-large Jerry Maynard said, “For that person to send that email – that was racist – to me, was just appalling. It was hurtful.”
Mayor Karl Dean issued the following statement:
“The email was extremely offensive. It does not reflect who we are as a city and our values.”
After a weekend in which Baker’s Public Relations firm was stripped of its lucrative contract with the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) by CVB President Butch Spyridon the other shoe dropped late Monday afternoon when THA board chairman, Bill Mish released a statement which said the association of hotels and restaurants in the state had “dismissed” Baker and his firm.
Mish said Baker displayed a lack of comprehension about the association’s role.
“Walt’s email reflects a deep misunderstanding of the nature of hospitality and our role as an association. His email was sent in his personal capacity and not in his connection with the hospitality association.”
The THA board‘s preemptive move allows the association to separate itself and more importantly its members from Baker and his atrocious behavior. Perhaps the THA realizes it cannot isolate itself from the black tourism market that, according to Carol H. Williams the president of Carol H. Williams Advertising, the largest independent ad agency in the country that is female and minority owned, “…spends a whopping $30 billion to $40 billion traveling each year, with much of that going for leisure travel.”
Williams went on to say in an article published by Black Meeting & Tourism that, “… by 2020, more than half of all travelers worldwide will be non-White.”
After Baker was outed by one of the recipients of his message, and suffered severe blows to his professional and personal reputation he attempted to blunt the torrent of criticism that came his way by implying in a written mea culpa he had been misinterpreted by those who believe his actions of forwarding a racist email were in fact an act of racism.
“Thursday night I spontaneously forwarded – to a small group of people – an email that had been sent to me as political humor,” Baker wrote. “As I forwarded it, I did not think or consider its implications, other than that it was political humor. I am saddened that anyone misinterpreted the sentiments behind the email. I deeply apologize to anyone who is offended by this action. I hope that those who know me realize that the message was not intended to be malicious or hurtful in any way and can find it in their hearts to forgive me.”
The reactions to Baker’s actions and apology ran the gambit from outrage to silence. One outcome of the controversy is Baker’s Public Relations firm was stripped of its lucrative contract with the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). CVB President Bruce Spyridon immediately issued the following statement last weekend.
“On behalf of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, I want to publically apologize for the offensive email sent yesterday by Tennessee Hospitality Association CEO Walt Baker,” Spyridon said in an email. “As a recipient of the email, 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 email are both appalling and unacceptable, and are not shared or condoned in anyway by the NCVB or by me personally.
After serious consideration, the NCVB has made the decision to terminate its contract with Mr. Baker’s marketing agency, Mercatus Communications. I have communicated this action and my deep regrets about the email to the Mayor’s Office and other hospitality industry leaders.”
Spyridon went on to say that, “The content is deeply hurtful” …and, “The attitudes expressed in the email are both appalling and unacceptable. Nashville’s hospitality industry has worked tirelessly to create a welcoming environment for our visitors and this behavior discredits the work done by so many.”
Historically the practice of dehumanizing African Americans and people of color has been perpetrated for over four-centuries by Europeans for their own benefit. The practice of debauching black people here in America began long before we became a nation. And, apparently this strategy is still impacting our psyche.
Historical use of depictions of African Americans as apes serves to dehumanize and discriminate.
Characterizing African Americans as non-human in general and as apes in particular has been utilized for centuries to justify the brutal treatment of Africans during the height of the slave trade and more recently to argue that blacks were not capable of achievements equaling whites. Disturbingly, the uses of these caricatures still resound in America today.
A study published last year by psychologists at Stanford, Pennsylvania State University and the University of California-Berkeley revealed many Americans actually subconsciously associate blacks with apes. The paper, “Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization and Contemporary Consequences,” is the result of a series of six studies conducted by Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford associate professor of psychology who is black, Pennsylvania State University psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff, Matthew C. Jackson and Melissa J. Williams, graduate students at Penn State and Berkeley, respectively.
Eberhardt said she was shocked by the results, particularly since they involved subjects born after Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. “This was actually some of the most depressing work I have done,” she said. “This shook me up. You have suspicions when you do the work—intuitions—you have a hunch. But it was hard to prepare for how strong [the black-ape association] was—how we were able to pick it up every time.”
The research took place over six years at Stanford and Penn State under Eberhardt’s supervision.
“African Americans are still dehumanized; we’re still associated with apes in this country,” Eberhardt said. “That association can lead people to endorse the beating of black suspects by police officers, and I think it has lots of other consequences that we have yet to uncover.”
Last year the giant retailer, Costco was forced to pull some “Cuddle With Me” baby dolls from its store shelves because the brown-skinned doll was surrounded by monkeys, and wore a hat labeled ‘lil monkey.’ The white version of the doll had a headband which read “pretty panda” and was surrounded by pandas.