Racist Images: In (and Out of) Racist Context, Pt.1

The NAACP protest against The New York Post and Murdoch’s News Corp for the loathsome Sean Delonas cartoon they published of a couple of weeks ago continues to spread as does the disagreement about whether or not the cartoon was racist or not, including this fascinating discussion by some of our sociological brethren over at Scatterplot. While the Scatterplot blogger Shaka called the cartoon “deeply racist to my eye,” lots of others vehemently disagreed with his take on the cartoon, and thus a lengthy debate ensued about whether or not the image is/is not racist.  While the sociology grad student who blogs at Skinny Malinky tried to infuse some scholarly literature into the discussion that recognizes the perspective of those who are the targets of such racist images (a la critical race theory), this attempt got pretty thoroughly dumped on here.   Beyond these few instances, The New York Post cartoon controversy (like the discussion of racism as a whole) goes unmentioned on most of the sociology blogs.

I still agree with Shaka (and lots of other folks) that the image is racist and part of why I think that has to do with the social context in which the image was published.

Cultural sociologist Wendy Griswold has a conceptual framework she calls the “cultural diamond” that is useful for understanding any cultural product (e.g., novel, film,  political cartoon).  I use Griswold’s work in my research and in my teaching and I think it could illuminate the discussion of racist images.    In her framework (first published here), Griswold argues that to understand a cultural product, we should always take into account four perspectives: 1) the author’s/director’s intent, 2) the audience/reader’s interpretation, 3) the text itself and 4) the social context (imagine these as four points on a baseball-diamond-like shape).   Much of the analysis of this cartoon has focused heavily on the author’s intent (e.g., “well, the cartoonist said he didn’t intend it to be racist”) and the reader’s interpretation of the cartoon (e.g., “well, I don’t read it as racist so therefore, the problem is all you people reading it as racist”).   The social context of the cartoon is the crucial, and underexamined, point here.  This cartoon did not emerge in a vacuum but rather within a very specific social milieu and context.  The cartoon was published by The New York Post (a publication with a history of white racism) after the election of the first African American president following centuries of institutionalized white supremacy, often enforced through violence, and frequently legitimated through the use of dehumanizing images of blacks, often depicting them as apes.   Without a knowledge of and appreciation for this social context, a cartoon like the one in The Post published is unfathomable.

To the impossibly young, like some of my college students born in 1990, it’s understandable that they might not know this history given that the basic facts about this country’s history of racism are still not included in the K-12 curriculum.   To the full grown adults with advanced degrees in sociology, it’s a little surprising to me that they don’t this history, but then maybe it shouldn’t be.  Still,  there’s the more immediate social context of Obama’s presidential campaign, during which he was specifically targeted with racist images by those on the right. These images were intended to demean him based on his race, and suggest something suspect about his character, rather than simply criticize him as a politician for his views.   Add to all that the further context of the racist death threats against Obama and the systematic police brutality in New York City and across the U.S. directed at black and brown folks, and the cartoon comes into focus as a piece of propaganda that legitimizes violence against non-white people (if not calling for the assassination of a sitting president).

Making sense of the images like the Delonas cartoon requires an understanding of that image within the context in which it appeared and sociology can help us understand that context.  The wider debate surrounding The Post cartoon strikes me as a little facile, as in this disappointing piece by Nat Hentoff who tries the libertarian ploy of recasting this as a first amendment issue, which only serves to deflect attention away from a discussion of racism.  There’s a much more difficult and complicated discussion to be had about racist images in and out of context, and for that, I’ll be back with Part 2.


  1. yes, i was disappointed at the sociological response to the “trauma” post and to the NY Post picture overall. as a POC, i was super upset the day it all came out. i wrote up a long email rant and was prepared to send it out to EVERYONE i knew. then, i checked myself, just sent out the picture to people in my inner circle, and let people deal with it emotionally themselves. still, i wanted everyone to be upset and to finally make the connections with the watermelon imagery, the death threats, and other racist imagery that have been employed against Obama throughout his campaign.

    the world we live with regards to things “racial” today, however, is one where no wants to feel responsible for racial inequality. for these reasons i empathize with the words of Attorney General Eric Holder: we are a “nation of cowards”.

    another way of looking at this, however, is to note that no one wants to be called a “racist” explicitly or implicitly, especially people who feel they themselves are well-intentioned. this is position the Scatterplot poster, i feel, felt the sociology blog had been put in by the “trauma” post.

    nonetheless, if we are to move beyond our cowardly/colorblind/faultless society, a new understanding of racism must gain currency in contemporary America: racism is not about intentions. in fact, the most virulent forms of racism occur invisibly, as an inert structural force. this inert structural force embodies both cultural symbolisms of whole peoples (e.g., blacks as monkeys (see Joseph Grave’s The Emperor’s New Clothing), Jews are rats (see Maus), or Muslims as terrorists) and the context of lived realities (e.g., racial residential segregation, racial differences in the quality of educational opportunities, racial profiling).

    yes, some racism is rooted in intention, but if we narrow the definition of racism as such we miss out on the transinstitutional and multidimensional nature and consequences of race and racial hierarchy. even in the Jim Crow era (and before then), this kind of institutional/structural racism was at work. See DuBois in The Philadelphia Negro and Omi and Winant in Racial Formation in the United States for earlier articulations of this perspective.

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