Friday, October 3, 2014
The Real Problem With the Boston Herald's Barack Obama Watermelon Cartoon
The Boston Herald published an editorial cartoon by Jerry Holbert which suggested that President Barack Obama should brush his teeth with watermelon flavored toothpaste. The original intent of the joke was to lampoon and skewer the ineffectiveness and incompetence of the Secret Service. Its topical humor was eclipsed by the controversy surrounding Holbert's use of an ugly racial stereotype. The Boston Herald has issued an obligatory "apology" as no "offense" was intended by the cartoon.
Once more and again, the myth of the liberal media is exposed. In reality, the American media routinely circulates racist images, narratives, and distortions of empirical reality about non-whites. While "prime time blackness" has helped to transform the global public's awareness of racial issues by priming whites (and others) to be more "progressive" and "inclusive", the American (and Western) media continues to operate through the white racial frame.
Consequently, it normalizes whiteness and routinely presents non-whites as somehow exotic, deviant, or abnormal. The ostensibly liberal news media channels an empty post civil rights era notion of fashionable diversity through the multicultural culture industry--which I suggest has done little to substantively improve the life chances of black and brown Americans en masse.
Holbert's watermelon cartoon has incited a range of responses.
For example, the always sharp Charles Pierce has linked Holbert and the Herald's obvious race baiting to the paper's target demographic of aging conservative whites.
Jonathan Chait--he who did not learn his lesson from the public butt whooping he received by Ta-Nehisi Coates--has bloviated a white victimologist explanation for Holbert's bigoted cartoon.
Chait's comments are instructive: they are boilerplate colorblind racism in action where he or she who is racist (sexist, homophobic, etc.) can decide the terms and context of how the target of their bad behavior ought and should respond to it in terms that are pleasing and acceptable to the former.
Moreover, Chait's excuse-making defense reminds us that white supremacy and white privilege are many things; ugly hubris and arrogance are among the most noxious of the day-to-day personality traits of those who are invested in whiteness as a type of material and psychological property that colours the behavior of the whole person.
Jerry Holbert's lazy and casual racism has been criticized on sound and reasonable grounds. An allusion to watermelons in the context of discussing Barack Obama channels one of the oldest white supremacist stereotypes about black people, one in which they are depicted as lazy, happy slaves who are subhuman and not fit for democracy.
However, while summoning righteous offense towards such overt racism, we should still ask ourselves about the mechanics and logic that cohere and give meaning to such stereotypes.
In the context of Holbert's cartoon, it would not matter if Obama was depicted as a president who happens to be black and may just like watermelon flavored toothpaste. It is the connection of "blackness" to the image of watermelons and the implication that black people are lazy, idle, and subhuman which creates the racial semiotics of the cartoon.
Likewise, Jews have faced vicious stereotypes as being greedy, cheap, untrustworthy, craven, and deviant. A claim that a given person who happens to be Jewish and has one (or several) of those personality traits would not have any real power beyond (perhaps) an indictment of their personal ethics and morality. It is the connection of those traits to "Jewishness" that gives Antisemitism its horrific power.
Racial stereotypes against the Other wipe away a given person's individuality and agency by linking them to assumptions, myths, lies, and socially deleterious beliefs about entire peoples as imposed on them by the in-group and the powerful.
Racial stereotypes do a range of political and social work. Primarily, in the United States and elsewhere they legitimate the civic marginalization and diminished life chances of black and brown Americans. In the extreme, the racial logic of these stereotypes mandates eliminationism and other types of violence against the Other.
The White Right's recurring and deranged behavior towards Barack Obama is a function of how conservatism and racism are now the same thing in the post civil rights era. The "blackening" of Obama by "birtherism", the Republican Party's embrace of the neo-Confederacy and the American Swastika (i.e. the Confederate flag), and overt and covert racial animus towards the United States' first black president are a reflection of the same white supremacist racial imagination that birthed the Boston Herald's watermelon editorial cartoon.
There is a deep layer of dark irony in Jerry Holbert's cartoon. He is mocking the inefficiency of the Secret Service and how they permitted an armed man to infiltrate the White House, where he would have done physical harm to Barack Obama and his family. The racial stereotype that links black people with watermelons is also an invitation to commit, and a legitimization of, white racist violence against African-Americans.
Jerry Holbert recycled an old white supremacist racist trope to fill up the obligatory few panels of an editorial cartoon about the day's political events.
I doubt that Jerry Holbert fully knew the depths of the toxic well-springs of his inspiration. Ignorance is no excuse for what has become the almost quotidian and expected racism faced by Barack Obama from the White Right and their allies--and by extension and implication the heightened levels of racial resentment and animus experienced by black and brown Americans since the moment when Obama derangement syndrome possessed so many of their fellow white countrymen.