9 Observations On The Boston Herald’s “Racist” Cartoon


1. (UPDATE) I’m adding this new #1 right at the beginning—there were originally only 8 observations—because some of the early comments suggest that I over-estimated some of my readers’ scholarship, historical knowledge and/or sensitivity on this issue, so let me be direct:  the reference to any African- American having as affinity to watermelon is about a half-step from calling him or her a nigger, and maybe even closer than that. Clear? This is not a political correctness matter. If the reference is intentional, there can be no debate over whether it is racist or not. It is. The President of the United States should not be subjected to intentional racial slurs.

2. I’m amazed—I just don’t know how this could happen. How could this cartoon make it into print? Cartoonist Jerry Holbert explained that he came up with the idea to use watermelon flavor after finding “kids Colgate watermelon flavor” toothpaste in his bathroom at home. “I was completely naive or innocent to any racial connotations,” Holbert said. “I wasn’t thinking along those lines at all.” Is this possible? In a political cartoonist? On one hand, since the racial connotation is so obvious and so predictably offensive, it seems incredible that a cartoonist for a major daily would dare offer such a cartoon unless he really didn’t perceive the racial stereotype it referenced. On the other, the man is a political cartoonist, not a Japanese soldier who’s been hiding in a cave for decades. How could he not know this? How could his ethics alarms, racial slur alarms, survival alarms not go off?

I don’t get it.

3. Hence the quotes around “racist.” The only way the cartoon makes any sense to me is if Holbert is amazingly, wonderfully non-racist, and completely color blind. The flavor of the toothpaste is innocuous if one doesn’t think in racial terms at all. Maybe he just thinks about the President as the President. If so, isn’t that terrific? Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was like that? Wouldn’t it be swell if a dumb detail like the flavor of the toothpaste in a cartoon that has nothing to do with race OR toothpaste wasn’t even noticed?

4. Except that Holbert works for a conservative newspaper, and was drawing a President whose supporters won’t let anyone forget he is black, since they interpret every critique or instance of opposition as racist, and have used race-baiting as a tactic unconscionably, and divisively, since before Obama was even elected. If Holbert hasn’t noticed any of this, his problem isn’t racism, it’s negligent inattention to the news, politics and culture. For someone in his field, that’s unethical too.

5. How did editors, publishers, proofreaders, printers, everyone not catch and stop this? Is everyone at the Herald 1) race-blind; 2) racist or 3) unbelievably lazy and inattentive?

It would seem so. Does anyone have another theory?

6.  The Herald’s apology is ridiculous:

“As Jerry Holbert discussed on Boston Herald Radio this morning, his cartoon satirizing the U.S. Secret Service breach at the White House has offended some people and to them we apologize.  His choice of imagery was absolutely not meant to be hurtful. We stand by Jerry, who is a veteran cartoonist with the utmost integrity.”

What? The cartoon is per se offensive, however it was intended. The paper should be apologizing to the President, Boston, the nation and the world, not just those sensitive souls who the offensive cartoon offended. So, in other words, “All of you racists out there who like a good “Feets don’t fail me now!” gag, watermelon jokes and a fine minstrel show now and then, we’re glad you enjoyed it!” Seriously? No wonder no one stopped the presses. These are idiots we have here.

7. The Herald’s management, competence, and culture problems go beyond Holbert. I don’t see how he can stay employed there, and after they have fired him, management should consider firing itself. Or perhaps fold the paper. This is signature significance: such fools shouldn’t be reporting the news. How can you trust people like this?  They are either lazy, stupid, reckless, or racist. Or all of these.

8. Various liberal websites, like this one, ran the cartoon without the caption. Despicable. The cartoon wasn’t bad enough: they had to materially misrepresent it to their red meat progressive readers who believe anyone who doesn’t cheer Obama is a racist. Without the caption, the cartoon appears to be racist by design and in message.  This is lying.

9. Jeff, a.k.a. King Kool, is our resident cartoonist here, and though he walked out on Ethics Alarms, I would sure love to know what Barry Deutsch would suggest doing with Holbert too. Can a political cartoonist be allowed to have a second chance after this? Wouldn’t he be afraid of ever criticizing Obama again, and wouldn’t that render him useless?


81 thoughts on “9 Observations On The Boston Herald’s “Racist” Cartoon

  1. #8 He’s a cartoonist. As provocative, talented, and amusing as they are, they aren’t writing official vision pieces for the newspaper, they aren’t prognosticating on business that could seriously impact the readers, they aren’t publishing lengthy front page articles disseminating the real meat and potatoes stories. Of course he get’s a second chance.

    Of course, I’m curious why he depicts the White House bathroom with one of those old fashioned steam radiator heaters…

    • Based on the fact that he didn’t know about the watermelon stereotype, maybe he never heard of central heating, either.

      ever mind whether he’s writing vision pieces, he’s engaged in political commentary. Who cares what someone who is clueless/ignorant/racist/dumber than a box of rocks thinks about the state of the nation? Not me. I’d fire him pronto. If a columnist couldn’t get away with it, neither should a a cartoonist.

      • At 27, I don’t get the whole watermelon thing, I’ve never seen a functional steam radiator heater either though. Although I know that the one is racially charged, and the other used to heat homes.

        I didn’t realize how racially charged though. And I think there’s an age ceiling to these things, and that might explain things like this breaking through every now and again, like the guy on Clerks 2 who was going to “take back” porch monkey, or the situations that pop up every now and again with university aged kids wearing blackface. I don’t think these people, or those characters, understood the scope of what they were doing. And maybe that’s cool. Maybe once enough people of a certain era die, we can have a conversation about watermelon in the same room as a black person and not be assumed racist. Yeah. That’d be neat.

        • I’m not so sure. Essentially, you are arguing the virtues of historical ignorance. If one price we pay for each generation carrying over some of the accumulated wisdom and experience of the past ones is the survival of some ancient taboos, I say: fine. It’s worth it. We shouldn’t forget Jim Crow, any more than we should forget The Holocaust. How do we simultaneously heal while keeping such memories alive?

          I don’t know.

          • Prince Harry once forgot about the Holocaust. As I mentioned in another post, the generation that witnessed the Holocaust has mostly died out, and the second generation will mostly die out within thirty or so years.

          • I think perhaps my position stems from a bitterness that perfectly good, innocent words become taboo because people older then me were idiots. It’s one things to go without nigger or coon, I can’t think of a way for those to come up in regular discussion, but watermelon. Really.

          • It’s not historical ignorance, it’s just letting the past stay in the past.

            Suppose the cartoonist had been a foreigner who came to America only recently and was unaware of the racist associations between black people and watermelon. Nobody sensible would call him a racist. We’d understand that from his point of view there’s nothing racist about depicting black people and watermelon in a cartoon. The racism is not inherent in the imagery. The racism is all in our heads, and the imagery is considered racist because we know the history of such depictions. Without that history, there’s nothing wrong with it, and no sensible person would expect a foreigner to know the history.

            Frankly, no sensible person should expect young people to know that history either. It’s hard enough to get them to learn important facts about the world. Keeping track of ancient racist stereotypes is not a high priority for them, nor should it be.

        • I believe you’re right about the age ceiling. I once discussed various racial/ethnic slurs with my kids, when they were about to start college, and with the exception of the Big N-word, they had no idea what I was talking about. I doubt your average high school kid would know that wop, kike, mick, gyppo or bohunk are even words, much less what they once meant. The watermelon reference as a slur is unknown to many, including, I believe, this cartoonist. It’s a piece of history.

          • Yeah…. Wop, kike, mick, gyppo, bohunk and I’m going to add Quaker, I don’t actually know what group those refer to… I think Mick might be a reference to the Mc in Irish names, and gyppo might refer to gypsies? Maybe?

              • From “The Godfather”:
                Jack Woltz to Tom Hagen: ‘You can tell Johnny Fontaine I don’t care how many guinea greaseballs he sends, he ain’t getting that part!’
                Tom Hagen: ‘Actually, I’m German-Irish.’
                Jack Woltz: ‘Yeah? Well listen to me, my kraut-mick friend,’…etc.

                Set, of course in the early fifties, perhaps the American Golden Age of ethnic/racial slurs, and I think, the beginning of the end of their constant, casual use. I seriously doubt that Humble Talent or others of his age have ever heard a conversation like the one above, outside of the movies.

            • I was gonna call out Quaker as not belonging in this list until I recalled that indeed Quaker was a pejorative applied to them by outsiders and that they preferred to call themselves Friends or something like that…

                • Quaker State motor oil producers had better change their name!

                  Too bad Quakers aren’t allowed to act on offense are advised by their philosophy to avoid being offended or being angry or else they could agitate and join the grievance industry!

                  Come to think of it, Pennsylvania better never be referred to as the Quaker State again! It’s just plain offensive!

              • Society of Friends. Indeed, the term “quaker” was originally meant as being disparaging. The Friends called upon each other to “quake” at the power of the Lord. Later, they came to accept it. The term “yankee” is another example of an insult being adopted!

                • You know that Quaker philosophy is absolute pacifism?

                  A Quaker once was ploughing his field with his mule when suddenly the mule stopped pulling. The Quaker exhorted an exhorted for hours. The mule knew nothing would happen so he squatted. The Quaker, pleaded and pleaded that he was behind schedule and planting would be late! They’d all starve! But he could not break his vows. Finally, frustrated he snapped:

                  “Friend Mule, thou knowest my religion forbids me to be angry. Thou knowest my religion forbids me to swear so I cannot curse thee. Thou knowest my religion forbids violence so I cannot beat thee and though certainly knowest my religion will not allow me to kill thee.”

                  The content mule sat defiant.

                  “However Friend Mule… My religion doth not forbid me from selling thee to a Southern Baptist.”

                  Ploughing was complete by the end of the day.

    • Yes, that was the later, edited version. Though I can’t call the suggestion that Obama uses watermelon flavored toothpaste politically incorrect. If that was the intent and done with malice aforethought, that’s straight up racial slurring, and every American should be offended at the disrespect.

      • I’ve never seen that, Jack. Texas is the watermelon capital of America and we love fried chicken. Everyone does, across the board. Turnip greens and black eyed peas? I had a steady diet of those in my elementary school cafeteria in Beaumont… and the schools were very much segregated then. You have to be really thin skinned to take some sort of racial offense at that.

        • I heard from someone who heard from someone else who got it on good authority from the grapevine from some other source who swears she heard that the cartoonist toyed with the following jokes for the speech bubble:

          “You sure are articulate”


          “Does the president know his butler uses his toothbrush?”

        • What???? Seriously? You must have missed the whole ice cream truck debate…here. No, wait, you commented on it. So what gives? You’ve obvious seen it…or somehow it never registered. I guarantee that there isn’t an African American in the US who isn’t aware of that stereotype

          It’s pretty infamous, as this article points out.

          Or as this genre of post card illustrates…

              • Jack: That image you posted must be pretty old! Who today truly equates watermelons with “niggers”? I didn’t back then and I was a child in a highly segregated town in eastern Texas. Both races pretty much ate and liked the same foods. I still have no idea where this “watermelon racism” thing got started, but it certainly wasn’t among common folks.

                • Sure it’s old…so is “nigger.” So are all the stereotypes. So what? I knew that you didn’t reference watermelons with black people when I was a kid in Boston, before I had even met a single African American. Of course it was well-known among the “common folk.”

                  • I’m SUGGESTING, Jack, that this “watermelon” thing isn’t the grim, racist symbol that some people think it is. I’m further suggesting that some people have tried to make it that way for political purposes. What other “black culinary” stereotypes do we have to walk lightly around? Fried Chicken? Turnip greens? Blackeyed peas? Cornbread? From childhood, I’ve eaten those as regularly as any black man of my generation. How far will we take this? For myself, I’m just sick and tired of being expected to watch every little word or phrase for fear that someone with an ax to grind will denounce it as racist, etc.

                    • I was aware of the watermelon taboo, but I agree with Steven, and with your point 3. If it is a grim, racist symbol, it shouldn’t be. You know how I feel about taboos. There’s got to be some sort of cultural technique we can use to phase out this whole racist food association. I detest the idea that a white person can be serving a perfectly conventional food and not be able to offer it to a black person without worrying about offending them. This past week one of my friends brought a giant watermelon from his garden to share. Does it not perpetuate divisiveness and segregation if I feel I could not invite a black person to partake of it? It was a delicious melon. I like watermelon-flavored items, and in fact carry around a pack of watermelon chewing gum. I’d like to be able to offer it out without double-checking people’s skin color, and I’d like for people to take my offer at face value.

                      Since we live in a world with little trust (not wholly unwarranted), I’ll have to settle for honing my skills at projecting earnestness and goodwill at people and hoping that it takes. Other than that, and short of a conspiracy to hide all historical racial slurs from future generations, the best option to fix this issue would be to push for giving people the benefit of the doubt. After all, negative prejudice is defined by taking for granted that our worst guess about a person is true and failing to actively seek out contradicting evidence. That definition applies to racists of all colors. Racism will survive as long as people not only assume that an otherwise perfectly innocuous remark is racist because its context or audience was of the wrong ethnicity, but also reject the denial of the person who uttered it. It’s a form of prejudice against society if one feels like nobody could offer one food just because they’re being nice, and I don’t like the direction such prejudice will take us.

                      When I saw the cartoon, I thought the guy in the bathtub was a racist until I saw the caption and realized that the focus of the cartoon was not racism and that therefore the guy in the bathtub was probably just making a cheerful and earnest remark. Now I have some questions: If everyone took the cartoonist’s denial of racism at face value, and if the cartoonist were actually a racist and lying to save face, in what ways would society be harmed? Would it be greater harm compared to a false positive, where the cartoon is branded a racist when he is actually racially-insensitive, i.e. ignoring or being ignorant of a real and relevant difference in culture which could be inferred from physical appearance? Which is the best way to err?

                    • It’s not every little wordthat’s political correctness. It’s some words and images—blackface, nigger, watermelon, monkey-comparisons—that are thoroughly embedded as racist symbolism, and typically used for that express purpose.

                    • Wrong. Grape soda, malt liquor, droopy trousers, products or styles that are supposedly or actually favored by blacks more than whites, are not like watermelon, minstrel shows, et al. They are not symbolic of Jim Crow, and were not used for a century to denigrate blacks as simple-minded darkies.

                      I would think that distinction would be pretty easy to see. Saying that a white guy likes Pat Boone and Matlock re-runs is one thing; saying that he has a Rebel flag on his wall and a white hood in his closet is something else.

                      Grape soda is delicious. PRESUMING a black man would choose it as a beverage of choice, however, is stereotyping.

                    • This is all “Black Redneck and White Liberal” material. Yes, large swathes of white southerners (especially poor white southerners) can identify with those culinary preferences, but it was the more wealthy progressive white liberals who, wanting to maintain separation, denigrated the poor via stereotypes. The blacks, almost all poor to a tee, completely fell in the stereotype, whereas whites didn’t all fall into the stereotype. So, the stereotype hung on blacks like an albatross across the culture – regardless of whether or not white southerners could just as easily identify with those food preferences. Indeed, it even allows white southerners who love those foods, to still use those foods as stereotypical slanders.

  2. I would sure love to know what Barry Deutsch would suggest doing with Holbert too. Can a political cartoonist be allowed to have a second chance after this? Wouldn’t he be afraid of ever criticizing Obama again, and wouldn’t that render him useless?

    Heh. I saw this while ego-surfing. (Yes, I ego-surf sometimes. Don’t pretend you’ve never done it! :-p )

    Keeping Holbert on or not shouldn’t be decided based on a single appalling mistake. First, because it’s a better world if everyone gets a second chance when reasonably possible. (I can think of exceptions – airline pilots who show up to work drunk shouldn’t get another shot, for instance – but as a general rule I want employers to err on the side of mercy.)

    Second, and more important, firing people for one stupid mistake sends a terrible message to all the other cartoonists, and would lead to worse cartooning in the long run. If cartoonists (and columnists) believe they can lose their careers based on a single day’s single stupid error, that will encourage meek, boring cartoons.

    Wouldn’t he be afraid of ever criticizing Obama again, and wouldn’t that render him useless?

    If the goal is to avoid meek, overly cautious cartoons, then it’s better to retain Holbert than to fire him, for the reason I state above.

    If six months from now Holbert has turned out six months of terrible cartoons, then let him go at that time based on his terrible work. Pre-emptively firing him based on speculation about his future work maybe declining is wrong.

    * * *

    I generally agree with your post.

    A friend of mine did a long series of cartoons representing the US government as various sorts of monkeys and apes. He quit doing that series once it became clear Obama was going to be President. That was the right call to make; good political cartoonists avoid images that carry racist baggage when dealing with Black public figures. The question isn’t “is the cartoonist’s heart pure?,” but “is there an obvious horrible reading of this cartoon that the cartoonist could reasonably have avoided?”

    Also, agree with you that Liberal America’s cutting out the caption was appalling. I wrote the editor, but probably she’ll ignore me.

  3. I think #4 makes this cartoon more acceptable. For 6 years the president has hidden behind his color and dodged every legitimate criticism thrown at him by alleging racism on the part of the critic. I see absolutely no problem with calling him out on doing that and maybe even grinding his face in his own race baiting tactics. His idiotic supporters have forfeited all right to be outraged given what has gone on the past 6 years.

  4. It’s my opinion that the cartoon is absolutely racist and disgusting…but I am also the same person who had to restrain myself from grabbing my sweet, kind, nine year old nephew by the neck and screaming at him, “We do not do things like that!” when he saw there was a freshly cut up watermelon in the refrigerator… and very excitedly asked his ten year old friend if he wanted some watermelon for their after school snack. Before I could grab my nephew and pull him into the laundry room to somehow explain the “evils” of offering his friend watermelon, both boys were sitting at the table, talking about an upcoming math project and really, really enjoying their watermelon. What was I going to do? Take that kid’s watermelon away and do my best to explain that my nephew can eat watermelon but his friend couldn’t… because…you know…umm…well, you know. Honestly, those boys didn’t know. I think I was the only one with the problem. I have hope for that generation.

    As far as the cartoon, I still think it was racist. But is that just me being white and not wanting to offend someone? I wonder if there is a difference in the number of whites versus blacks who believe the whole watermelon thing is racist. We white people can get pretty indignant about things.

    • You got mad at your nephew for offering (what I assume to be a black friend) watermelon?

      Hypersensitive much?

      If the friend was white (since you don’t clarify), then I don’t understand at all your mini-freak out.

      • Count your blessings that you don’t have to live with my “mini-freak outs. I was really trying to make the point in a somewhat hyperbolic manner that people from my generation may see racism…and from what I’ve seen the younger generation has more of an attitude of “what’s the big deal”…I see some very positive change in many kids today. I hope it sticks.

          • Today, no, as some Holocaust survivors are still alive, and many of their children and grandchildren are of course alive today.

            But in thirty years, I doubt the Holocaust will feel as real to Jewish youth as it does to today’s Jewish youth- let alone Jewish youth whose parents were alive during the Holocaust.

          • Come on! Of course there’s no difference when there is assumed innocence. Using innocence as a starting point a wise parent can go down both routes quite simply:

            There’s a clear difference between a kid who obviously wants a piece of watermelon himself also offering his black friend a piece of watermelon and a kid teasing his black friend with no intention of having watermelon himself. kids are relatively transparent…any parent should be able to tell what their child meant and quietly and calmly assess the situation without possibly hinting to the innocent kids that something wrong was suspected.

            In the other instance, the friend could just be picking on his friend like BOYS DO! A simply, well crafted inquiry by the parent, could get to the bottom of that also, all without a sharp immediate rebuke.

            • I would never hesitate to offer a black friend watermelon if that’s what was available and we were eating it. Having a black friend for dinner and giving him fried chicken and watermelon “special,” however—not cool.

              Now you have me thinking about “Fawlty Towers” and the Germans….

              • “Having a black friend for dinner and giving him fried chicken and watermelon “special,” however—not cool”

                I think, however, the formula for that is:

                “Having any friend over for dinner and not asking them, as the guest, what their food preference is – not cool” — a simple civil and expected question when having guests over. In which case, if said black friend specifically requested Fried Chicken and Watermelon, I’d oblige. If said black friend said “whatever you want” or “surprise me”, then your play-it-safe-and-hold-the-soul-food strategy applies.

                Fawlty Towers

                Yes, in high school, PBS ran all the Fawlty Towers episodes EXCEPT that one because of their lines about the Indian Cricket players… I taped them and was seriously irritated they left that one off… had to wait until I found them on DVD.

                “Vee haff meet hier in ze building!!!”

                “Certainly, I’ll just get your hors d’oeuvres, hors d’oeuvres which must be obeyed at all times without question!”

                “Oh, you’re speaking German! I thought something was wrong with you!”

                Guest: “Is there something wrong? Will you stop talking about the war? Me? You started it! We did not start it.”
                Fawlty: “Yes, you did, you invaded Poland!”

                  • Indeed. Good comeback by the kraut. I love Fawlty Towers. But to get boring and historical now:

                    However, to be quite accurate, England didn’t win the war, it barely managed to survive….

                    In all accuracy, only 2 nations “won” the Great Great War (1914-1945): USA and Russia… All other participants were either crushed existentially, crushed materially, or were reduced from their original holdings, power and prestige by huge amounts.

                    And, if we want to really consider European / Global history in holistic terms, the Great Conflict Exhausting Western Civilization’s Pent Up Energy (1914-1988) ended with one super winner, the USA (a good thing) and probably 6 dozen, mini-winners, that is the countless new nations gaining Indepedence from collapse of the old world colonial powers (not yet sure if this is a good thing).

          • Big difference between innocently offering a friend something to eat compared to sticking the friend in an oven. I can’t imagine my nephew joking of such atrocities.

              • A man whose eye was missing from the war and replaced with a wooden replica was at a dance alone. He noticed a woman with a prosthetic leg sitting alone and dejected. He went to ask her, “Would you like to dance with me?”

                Making her day, she leapt up and yelled “Would I?!”

                Pissed, he screamed back, “PEG LEG!”

              • I openly told the joke about “what are the Twin Towers?” and “who are the Arabs?” to a Jordanian colleague who had given me the “I’m sorry about the victims but…” speech in the wake of 9/11.

  5. It seems the cartoon is disparaging the home invader, Not Obama: Isn’t it the home invader suggesting that Obama would use watermelon toothpaste?

  6. Well- this has been an interesting conversation. I find it encouraging that so many posters with usually “diverse” points of view agree that implied racism is still way out of hand and overblown. Similar “culinary comparisons” could be made with a variety of other groups of people. Westerners, for example, are sometimes taunted for our love of barbeque and chili… the latter of Latin origin. An Army buddy of mine went proudly by the nickname of “Taco Vendor”. Texans love Mexican food as much as latinos do. It’s part of the Anglo-Latin mixture that defines Texas as a national entity, We tease our Cajun compadres about gumbo- but we like that, too. My brother-in-law (from LaFayette) makes a mean pot of it! Italian pasta, Polish sausages… the list is practically endless. For myself, the worst eatery insult I ever consciously throw around is referring to white liberals as “quiche eaters”!

  7. I have a hard time believing that the cartoonist didn’t know about the watermelon stereotype.
    Sorry, just not buying it.

  8. I gotta admit, and maybe my couple of years behind you, even though a native Texan, I didn’t connect that until you pointed it out. I I grew up knowing the reference. But maybe I’ve outgrown it? I think it was a lousy cartoon on more levels (reminds me, almost, of that bad mag cover art), and yeah, this is a relic that’s being aged out of the general public knowledge. Good riddance.

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