Ethics Quiz: “I Don’t Know What This Cover Means, But It Must Be Racist”


The recent thread regarding the supposedly racist Boston Herald cartoon has prompted me to ponder how much we are obligated to know what was, is and will be considered offensive, and whether the cultural rules or guidelines regarding this are fair or clear. That post is in the works, but this one interposed itself.

The latest issue of Canadian Lawyer magazine  features a cover story about the lack of diversity on the Canadian bench. Above the Law joins outraged students, lawyers and civil rights advocates in being convinced that the cover is racist.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz for today:

Is it?

From a student group at McGill:

“While we appreciate the attention called to the need to increase the proportion of women and visible minorities on the bench, we question why the stylized cover portrays an apparently incarcerated black man glaring at a white woman. This cover is troublesome as it reinforces existing negative stereotypes about visible minorities, women and criminality, and thereby affects how the important issue of diversity on the bench is framed and discussed.”

The magazine’s bizarre explanation for the illustration:

“The intent of the cover was to illustrate a woman waiting and having to bide her time trying to figure out the password or key to get through a locked door, consistent with the theme of the article. The figure behind the door with a speakeasy-type slider is in the shadows, representing the gatekeeper of the establishment/old order looking askew at this person trying to break the code and get into the private club (ie: the bench).

Oh. What???

Now Above the Law’s critique of that:

“Even if we accept that the point of this image was to show a bouncer keeping women out, they opted to have a story about diversity where the only black face was the bouncer. Presumably, since this is an article about diversity, the black face is not actually the “establishment/old order,” but rather some employee of them. The woman might make it to the promised land, while the black dude is just working the door. Moreover, the woman seems entirely disinterested in this “club”; far from “trying to figure out the password,” she’s just obliviously looking at her watch. And wouldn’t a velvet rope be much more indicative of an exclusive club than a prison cell thing?”

My verdict: everyone is working mighty hard to find racism in what I think is just a confusing, badly-conceived, incompetent illustration.

It’s not racist. It’s bad. No black man ever glared at a white woman? No owner of an establishment ever checked through the little hole in a speakeasy door? Showing a white man glaring at a black woman would be OK? There are only two people in the photo…they have to be some race, don’t they? No black character at all wouldn’t make sense. Two black characters wouldn’t either. If there was a racist intent, why would it surface in a cover about diversity? In a sane society, the focus wouldn’t be on imagined racial imagery, but on the fact that this might be the most incomprehensible cover art ever seen. That’s what’s unethical about it. Racist? Who knows what’s going on in that photo.

Maybe the white woman is checking her new Apple watch to see when she’ll be free to date the black guy, who is glaring because he thinks the new gadget is a waste of money. Maybe the black man is glaring because the white woman innocently asked him if he had ever tried watermelon tooth paste. I thought the black guy was in one of those old jails with a little window like the one James Bond escaped from in “Goldfinger,”  and had been sentenced by the female white judge who hadn’t given him the right time of day…oh, who the hell knows what’s going on?

The cover stinks. It can’t be racist if it’s impossible to understand it.

Can it?

27 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: “I Don’t Know What This Cover Means, But It Must Be Racist”

      • It just took me back… Usually legal codes indicate semi-complex civilizations. Maybe we should send a team of anthropologists up there to see what’s going on…

        Do you think a contingent of soldiers should go, in case it turns out that these ‘Canado-Magnon’ people prove dangerous?

        • texagg04 and Jack Marshall:
          I don’t know that I can abide making fun of our Canadian brothers and sisters. I have a soft spot in my heart for our northern neighbors. They gave us Rush, quite possibly the greatest rock band ever in the history of rock bands (the Beatles don’t count because, well, they’re the Beatles). If figure any country that produces music of that quality must be as close to heaven on Earth as can be. And besides, have been to Alberta? Spectacularly beautiful.

          The “Canado-Magnon’ man was a good line, though. Thanks for messing up my keyboard – I spilled my caffe latte all over it from laughing so hard. I will send you the bill in the next few days!


        • Our Canadian research teams often make anthropologic excursions into Canada’s Mexico, but they invariably come back 10 IQ points lower with a boot full of cheap cheese and booze from Happy Harry’s

      • Wouldn’t they be African-Canadians? Black Mounties? “People of African descent residing in Canada”?

        Then again, I’ve always disliked ” African-Americans ” for being overly specific. What about Afro-Caribbean people? What about Charlize Theron, if she became a U.S. citizen. She knows far more about life in Africa than American Blacks.

  1. Yeah. I can’t figure what message the image is supposed to be sending.

    Maybe it’s from the point of view of being in the jail cell and a criminal judge is finally serving her time while a non-judge black person is desperate to be employed as a corrupt judge and serve his time for corruption of the bench…and she’s just waiting for her release…?

  2. It looks like there are vertical bars – or shadows of vertical bars – being reflected on the door on the cover. Maybe a unique decorating style at that speakeasy?

  3. I am not sure I agree that the confusing cover is unethical – it’s just bad cover art. I fail to see the racial outrage of this cover. Perhaps I misread or misinterpreted the cover but I thought it meant that the white woman made it INTO to the private club ahead of the black guy, and the woman’s nonchalant or indifferent response to the black guy’s plight signified that she has now become part of, and party to, the elite power structure disenfranchising other minorities, in essence saying that while women cracked the code and got admitted into the club and now she forgot the struggles she had to overcome to crack that code. It seems to say, “Well, white women made into the club ahead of other minorities and look at her. She doesn’t care about the rest of the minorities. Mission accomplished. No more need for diversity programs so let’s move along.”


  4. Huh? I didn’t see it as a speakeasy at all, but some kind of incarceration. The lady is a lawyer. I can’t see how a speakeasy would be relevant to the current legal profession at all.

    • BAM!

      Here it is:

      It isn’t racist against Black People. It’s racist against white people. The reason we need more diversity on the bench and in law is because white people can’t keep themselves quietly skewing the system to convict more blacks. The poor devil behind the door is unfairly convicted because more white people on the law side of the law just love locking up the Africans. He’s just eager to get in the law profession so he can settle the score and balance the numbers so fewer blacks are unfairly incarcerated.

      Yep. We need diversity because evil white people just can’t help themselves!

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