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THE WASHINGTON POST OPINIONS

H&M apologized this week for this image. (H&M via AP)

The year began with two shocking images of black children going viral online.

The first was a photo of public school students in Baltimore huddled in coats, hats and gloves trying to stay warm because their school, and five others across the city, had no heat. The second was a British H&M clothing ad featuring a gorgeous dark-skinned boy wearing a green hoodie that declared him “the coolest monkey in the jungle.”

The ad, coming right after the Baltimore school story, was an insult on top of so many chronic injuries.

The ad sparked mostly outraged responses, with some notable exceptions. Some white — and a few black — people thought it was “cute” and accused black folks of seeing racism where there was none. The boy’s Kenyan mother, who resides in Sweden, told everyone to get over it. Black artists created revised versions of the ad with positive messages about the boy, crowning him a prince or king. The faux-black white woman Rachel Dolezal, who has been hawking black hair braiding services, lollipops, calendars and other pro-black wares, is trying to cash in on the controversy with her own “prince of the planet” protest hoodie.

But a few black people responded by photoshopping hoodies onto white children with mocking messages like “ugliest honkie in the jungle,” “saltiest cracker in the box,” “future school shooter.”

There is a context to this kind of response — it is happening because black folks have been pushed to the edge by a resurgence of racism in the public sphere, and social media gives us a public way to respond.

The conversation isn’t new. Black people have always insulted racist white people among ourselves in our own communal circles. Today, many black folks have had enough and refuse to remain silent. And digital clapbacks are a way of taking the gloves off and hitting back.

Our bigoted president has helped usher in a culture so debased that people feel free to spew hateful attacks with no fear of reprisal. The moral universe has been inverted. You can lie without consequence. Nothing is sacred, including using children as pawns in adult debates about race and politics.

On one level, it’s petty (and unproductive — Internet memes won’t end structural racism) for black folks to insult white kids. But the rage and reasons behind it were understandable. There is historical precedent for these attacks. In recent years, H&M, Dove, Pepsi, Nivea, Gap, Bennetton, Sony, American Apparel, Burger King, Intel and others have produced racist ads. They all got called out, then offered the predictable halfhearted apologies, claiming they “had no idea” that their images and messages could be interpreted as racist.

But all of those ads are rooted in the centuries-old racist distortions of black humanity that have long circulated in science, medicine, folk tales, music, comedy and other forms of popular culture. Admakers choose these themes precisely because they know they’ll resonate with white audiences who will get the “joke” at the expense of black people. They may well do it unconsciously. A racist system, after all, doesn’t require malice: It runs on routine behavior, tunnel vision and willful ignorance.

Why are black children always rendered as a monkey, and never a lion or graceful bird? Why are they always eating watermelon or a banana, never grapes or foie gras? For more than a century, advertising agencies have worked to make black inferiority tangible and consumable for white people and to create abstract ownership over black lives.

And by now, black people can’t keep standing silently by and watching our children being debased. We had no choice during the post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, when racist images of black children were featured in pedophilic pornography: as monkeys or grinning watermelon eating pickaninnies with big lips; as gamblers and thieves; as bait for gators and other wild animals. Black children were routinely disparaged in marketing for consumer products like games, soaps, shoe polish, children’s books and postcards, as well as in pediatric journals, brain measurements, IQ and personality testing. Photos of the sadistic lynchings of black children as young as age 2 circulated widely.

Back then, black leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Harlem Renaissance writers and artists such as Langston Hughes, Carter G. Woodson, Alice Dunbar-Nelson and others worked to counter that with positive images in magazines, comic strips, poetry, photography, “best baby” contests and Tom Thumb weddings.

But while black folks have always defended their children against white racism, my own historical research on race and childhood has found no evidence that black people publicly debased white children through visual imagery of any kind as turnabout.

Today, it’s easy and comforting to engage in instant revenge on social media. We can hide behind avatars, screen names and handles and express ourselves without consequence. It’s not as hard as the slow and dangerous work of activism to change social policies. Social media makes us feel like we can finally DO something, express ourselves openly. And we can have our say in the digital realm — but we must be careful not to use too much of our emotional energy on the quick fixes.

Focusing anger on white children might seem like fair play when marketers won’t respect black children, but what does it yield for us besides the flash of momentary emotional release and the illusion of reversing the power dynamic?  White people can shrug it off when black people make fun of their kids because those insults don’t threaten a white supremacist system. That’s because white supremacy has invested itself over the last 500 years in the idea that white children should be protected from, among other things, racist ideas of what black people might do to them.

If black people want to strike at institutionalized racism, neither focusing on telling white people that black children are not animals nor calling white kids honkies and salty crackers will help much. If our children shouldn’t be fair game, neither should theirs or anyone else’s. Devaluing their humanity isn’t going to dismantle racism. The visual defilement of children will only ensure that another generation grows up to underwrite the logic and brutality of racism.

Read more:

We don’t need Lincoln-inspired racial ‘unity.’ We need whites to stop being racist.

Black America should stop forgiving white racists 

Why is America celebrating the beating of a black child?