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.


Buddy H said...

I doubt that Jerry Holbert fully knew the depths of the toxic well-springs of his inspiration.

I have to wonder about that. He was born in 1958; he's 56 years old. Surely, at one point in his life, he would have encountered the "we all sure loves watermelon!" racist meme. If he were a twenty-something, he might get away with pleading ignorance. I was born in 1958, and I'm old enough to be aware of all the watermelon sambo blackface imagery that used to be mainstream.

It's obvious he thought he'd sneak in a little dog whistle to his loyal "right thinking" fans, and then was appalled when people called him out on it.

If you research his body of work (if you can call it that) you will see he once portrayed Obama as a pimp. He has used every toxic stereotype, just like the giggling white racist that he is.

His excuse about his "kids using watermelon toothpaste" is obvious bullshit. He's almost sixty years old. His "kids" are pushing thirty.

KissedByTheSun said...

Many white men want to continue to have the power to say what they want, and do what they want to people who they've deemed to be sub-human. The idea that they cannot tell us how to feel anymore is causing great shocks to their system.

balitwilight said...

The watermelon trope arose from the murky depths of plantation slave-labour camps. Men, women and children - who enriched the lazy sociopaths who forced them into backbreaking bondage in sweltering 90-degree heat for 16-hour days - might occasionally find some human relief from a fruit that contained water. If there were any shame in American-style racism, any mention of watermelon would only indict the "white" people in the audience - not out of collective guilt - but out of shame. Instead, White Supremacy turns their own shame into a weapon of attempted humiliation.

Persecuted inmates at Nazi labour camps ate the rare radish too, because they could not share the loaves and cheese that the jackbooted racism-motivated maniacs who imprisoned them enjoyed. I'm sure 18 year-old camp-guards giggled at the sight of a radish. Yet somehow, there are no giant radish cartoons appearing next to Jewish politicians in prestigious German newspapers today. German society can manage that much decency, which seems forever to evade Americans.

That a racist moron like Jerry Holbert can hold a lionized position for as long as he has is as good an indicator of Affirmative Action for "white" men as anything else.

DanF said...

Gob-smacking racism aside, look at the bathroom he drew. A radiator? A combo tub and shower with a curtain? Toothbrushes in a cup on the sink? The man lives in a fully-staffed, presidential mansion - not a Cleveland suburb.

chauncey devega said...

Obama isn't allowed a proper bathroom. That would be too uppity.

chauncey devega said...

He is a piece of work. Yet, he defenders buy his b.s. because they agree with him on a basic level regarding their racist animus towards Obama and black people more generally.

chauncey devega said...

Wow. I never made that connection. Smart link to the death camps too. The continuity of human wickedness and also triumph and desire to survive.

chauncey devega said...

I will need to follow up on that story. Racism and sexism are intimates. The great book Contract in Domination is a must on the topic.

Gable1111 said...

This was a cheap, obvious and gratuitous shot. Holbert could have easily made his professed point without throwing in the watermelon reference, which then made it about what he probably intended in the first place.

This was just another racist shot at the President; another reminder that you may be President, but you're still a n*gger.

Michael Varian Daly said...

Seriously. I'm sixty two and every White Racist trope was quite thoroughly imprinted upon me by the time I was nine or ten and I came from a 'liberal' family. And we're not just talking Black folks here either. Back then even Italians were not yet really considered 'White'.

joe manning said...

So much of humor is done to embarrass and humiliate as to illustrate imbedded cultural anti-nomies which we internalize. Particularly, humor is the prophylaxis of racist demonizing as when racists defend the indefensible by saying it was just a joke.

chauncey devega said...

These are cultural scripts we all learn in a given society. What happened here was either 1) intentional or 2) his deep subconscious attitudes making themselves clear.

I vote for 1 given his history and audience.