More On The Andrew Yang “Racist” Cartoon: Some Perspective From The Ethics Alarms Archives…

In contrast to the political cartoon discussed in the previous post, THIS is a racist cartoon. Below is the Ethics Alarms post from 2014 titled, 9 Observations On The Boston Herald’s ‘Racist’ Cartoon”:

1. 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 an 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?


Ampersand, aka Barry Deutch, did weigh in after my request (King Kool did not: where are you, Jeff?), and offered this:

“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.”

11 thoughts on “More On The Andrew Yang “Racist” Cartoon: Some Perspective From The Ethics Alarms Archives…

  1. 2. Why not assume positive intent? Are white people never to refer to watermelon (or fried chicken, orange/grape soda or any other so-called racial dog-whistles)? One time, I was at a pitch-in table at work, saw watermelon and was genuinely happy to see is as I really like watermelon. I also expressed myself excited in the manner of, “Oooh, I love watermelon”.

    Right next to a black co-worker. She took it in stride, admitting that she doesn’t care for it because it’s mostly water. I replied that my sister doesn’t like it either because of the seeds.

    But I felt self-conscious after that because it suddenly occurred to me that my black co-worker might have thought I mentioned watermelon out loud because she was standing next to me.

    Even though I didn’t.

    There’s merit in self-censoring, but there’s also danger. This is where intent – which has been rejected by the Left – is important.

    The artist thought it was genuinely funny to have a White House invader getting so far in without interception that he finds his way into the President’s bathtub and can even recommend toothpaste to him. The flavor of toothpaste he happened to write is unfortunately labeled as racist, but that doesn’t mean that the artist intended to insult the President or any black reader.

    • I think you’re working really hard to deny the obvious. The watermelon stereotype is as ubiquitous as blackface. If a pundit is so ignorant he never heard of it, then he’s not qualified to be a pundit. I repeat: using watermelon in connection with a black public figure is just a hair less offensive than using an outright racial slur.

      • Not disagreeing necessarily, but I’m not knowledgeable here. Why is the stereotype of blacks loving watermelons offensive, exactly? Is there some distastefulness to liking watermelon, or something? I’m just not sure I understand the foundational issue.

        • From a six year old essay:

          “But the stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. The trope came in full force when slaves won their emancipation during the Civil War. Free black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and in doing so made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. This racist trope then exploded in American popular culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure. Few Americans in 1900 would’ve guessed the stereotype was less than half a century old.

          Not that the raw material for the racist watermelon trope didn’t exist before emancipation. In the early modern European imagination, the typical watermelon-eater was an Italian or Arab peasant. The watermelon, noted a British officer stationed in Egypt in 1801, was “a poor Arab’s feast,” a meager substitute for a proper meal. In the port city of Rosetta he saw the locals eating watermelons “ravenously … as if afraid the passer-by was going to snatch them away,” and watermelon rinds littered the streets. There, the fruit symbolized many of the same qualities as it would in post-emancipation America: uncleanliness, because eating watermelon is so messy. Laziness, because growing watermelons is so easy, and because it’s hard to eat watermelon and keep working—it’s a fruit you have to sit down and eat. Childishness, because watermelons are sweet, colorful, and devoid of much nutritional value. And unwanted public presence, because it’s hard to eat a watermelon by yourself. These tropes made their way to America, but the watermelon did not yet have a racial meaning. Americans were just as likely to associate the watermelon with white Kentucky hillbillies or New Hampshire yokels as with black South Carolina slaves….Many slave owners let their slaves grow and sell their own watermelons, or even let them take a day off during the summer to eat the first watermelon harvest. The slave Israel Campbell would slip a watermelon into the bottom of his cotton basket when he fell short of his daily quota, and then retrieve the melon at the end of the day and eat it. Campbell taught the trick to another slave who was often whipped for not reaching his quota, and soon it was widespread. When the year’s cotton fell a few bales short of what the master had figured, it simply remained “a mystery.”

          But southern whites saw their slaves’ enjoyment of watermelon as a sign of their own supposed benevolence. Slaves were usually careful to enjoy watermelon according to the code of behavior established by whites. When an Alabama overseer cut open watermelons for the slaves under his watch, he expected the children to run to get their slice. One boy, Henry Barnes, refused to run, and once he did get his piece he would run off to the slave quarters to eat out of the white people’s sight. His mother would then whip him, he remembered, “fo’ being so stubborn.” The whites wanted Barnes to play the part of the watermelon-craving, juice-dribbling pickaninny. His refusal undermined the tenuous relationship between master and slave.

          Emancipation, of course, destroyed that relationship. Black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons during slavery, but now when they did so it was a threat to the racial order. To whites, it seemed now as if blacks were flaunting their newfound freedom, living off their own land, selling watermelons in the market, and—worst of all—enjoying watermelon together in the public square. One white family in Houston was devastated when their nanny Clara left their household shortly after her emancipation in 1865. Henry Evans, a young white boy to whom Clara had likely been a second mother, cried for days after she left. But when he bumped into her on the street one day, he rejected her attempt to make peace. When Clara offered him some watermelon, Henry told her that “he would not eat what free negroes ate.”

          Newspapers amplified this association between the watermelon and the free black person. In 1869, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published perhaps the first caricature of blacks reveling in eating watermelon. The adjoining article explained, “The Southern negro in no particular more palpably exhibits his epicurean tastes than in his excessive fondness for watermelons. The juvenile freedman is especially intense in his partiality for that refreshing fruit.”…The primary message of the watermelon stereotype was that black people were not ready for freedom. During the 1880 election season, Democrats accused the South Carolina state legislature, which had been majority-black during Reconstruction, of having wasted taxpayers’ money on watermelons for their own refreshment; this fiction even found its way into history textbooks. D. W. Griffith’s white-supremacist epic film The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, included a watermelon feast in its depiction of emancipation, as corrupt northern whites encouraged the former slaves to stop working and enjoy some watermelon instead. In these racist fictions, blacks were no more deserving of freedom than were children….By the early 20th century, the watermelon stereotype was everywhere—potholders, paperweights, sheet music, salt-and-pepper shakers. A popular postcard portrayed an elderly black man carrying a watermelon in each arm, only to happen upon a stray chicken. The man laments, “Dis am de wust perdickermunt ob mah life.” As a black man, the postcard implied, he had few responsibilities and little interest in anything beyond his own stomach”

  2. 1. That WAS a cheap shot, however, Obama brought it on himself by trading on his color. I agree that the president of the US, indeed anyone, shouldn’t be attacked with racial slurs. Unfortunately any kind of political discussion always gets dragged down into the gutter and there is always someone willing to go lower.

    2. Either everybody was asleep at the switch or the powers that be saw it and decided to wave it through. I think it was the latter.

    3. Don’t kid yourself.

    4. There’s no way he was that clueless. He knew what he was doing and he either knew he could get away with it or he was testing the limits of what he could get away with.

    5. Probably some of 2 and a lot of 3, plus a bit of defiance against political correctness.

    6. Guess this time it’s the left on the receiving end of “sorry that you feel that way, but we really don’t care, go cry in your beer, or your grape soda.”

    7. Yeah, this paper has a lousy culture.

    8. They probably saw a way to turn it to their advantage.

    9. Well, they could abolish political cartoons there, as something that’s outlived its usefulness.

  3. Who is the wHITE guy in the bathtub?
    If it were Biden, wouldn’t the cartoon be a sarcastic critique of the racial relationship between the two?

    • I had this same problem.

      I remember this from when the post was originally made. Neither then not now initially did I see the caption at the very bottom of the photo. I thought it was a credit and ignored it.

      Without that caption, I was utterly baffled as to the meaning of the post. No meaning other than invoking the stereotype for its own sake was apparent.

  4. Here is my best shot:

    I do not believe for a second that the artist was unfamiliar with the watermelon stereotype. I don’t think that a stereotype is nearly as bad as a racial slur. Racial slurs are intentionally cruel; stereotypes serve a useful purpose in conveying information in a shorthand way. So much humor relies on our understanding of stereotypical information.

    Was it an unhappy coincidence that the artist just happened to learn about Watermelon flavored toothpaste during Obama’s term. Oh, Cruel Fate! Yes, the flavor exists. Yes, I probably even have some at home. Could it be a coincidence? Sure.

    But, why is the artist implying that Obama would be using a kid’s toothpaste? Clearly he is implying that Obama, a symbol for all black people, is like a child. They are not very smart. The real racism in the cartoon is that Obama is stupid, not that he likes watermelon.

    Wait– that did not quite work out as a defense. How about this:

    The intruder is the racist one. After all, the intrusion into the White House did not make Obama look good. This was a serious security breach. Anyone who do anything to make Obama look bad must be a racist and a white supremacist (even though the guy was Hispanic). But, how can you convey that he is a racist in a single panel, besides putting him in a Klan outfit?

    That’s right: Watermelon-Flavored toothpaste! Only a racist would make such a comment.

    Too bad the artist did not realize how ingenious his own cartoon was.


  5. I plead guilty.
    Way back in the 70s, my boss, a Black Army officer one rank above me was coming to dinner. This was when the Army was heavily into race-relations training. He was single, and our kids had eaten earlier, so it was just the three of us. My wife was somewhat reluctant about the whole thing, but did as I had asked and served up a delicious baked pork chop dinner for herself and me, and a large plate of watermelon for my boss. He and I had a great laugh over this, while she looked on a bit uncertainly, and then brought his real dinner. He said he loved watermelon.
    Obviously, entirely different than a public cartoon, and, likewise, my boss and I knew each other well enough that we both could laugh together over a racial stereotype. But, I sure wouldn’t try that kind of thing today.

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