More On the Obama Cartoon and Losing an Opportunity
I talked with a good friend tonight--a person of color who has been working in antiracism for years--about the Obama cartoon and things got heavy for a second. But I'm glad we talked about it because it made some things clear to me.
The first is that my friend said outright that discussions of race at this intensity don't belong to The New Yorker, being essentially a white publication with a privileged white audience. The New Yorker is not equipped to deal with these issues. (Let's not argue for a moment whether or not Jews are white. I'm willing to concede that point in either direction but I think most people can agree that TNY serves a primarily white, progressive establishment audience.)
I wouldn't disagree with this opinion at all if The New Yorker were doing a front-page satirical cartoon about the Duke rape scandal or Don Imus or any of the multitudes of racist incidents that spring up in the media for a week here and there. Those are clearly best handled by people who really understand what they mean, and that's really not The New Yorker.
The point I want to make and have made before and will probably make again is that Obama is now national news (has been for an incredibly long time). The way the media treats Obama, and the public understanding of race, have been part of an ongoing national discussion for well over a year because Obama is in contention for the office of president. If he wins, and he has a good chance of winning, those racial issues will be directly affecting everyone. Everyone. Everyone.
Set aside the fact that racial issues have always been affecting everyone in this country and beyond. If Obama wins, racial issues will be openly, directly, and acknowledgedly part of the national discourse for untold years to come. In fact, they already are. Even if Obama loses, it'll be months, even years, before this discussion is off the table, and by then the discussion will have mutated radically.
We've all been yelling for years to deaf ears that race is everyone's problem and everyone has to think about it and make an effort for racism to go away. And now, here we are. Everyone is thinking about it, everyone is making an effort. They're failing right and left, but it's here. And we're squawking because others are trespassing on our issue? Where's our leadership on this issue? Where's our intelligence? Where's our broad-mindedness? Where, in all of this, are we setting terms for debate? Where are we guiding the debates as they arise? Where are we showing the national mainstream that we really do know better, and are willing and able to bring them along with us?
I've said before that race bloggers and media pundits have failed to address the race issue raised by Obama's candidacy in a broader way. Race "experts," so to speak, haven't even managed to take all of the incidents of race-baiting surrounding Obama's campaign and formulate a broader picture to use to talk about race in the context of a presidential election. And because race pundits have failed to take the bull by the entire body, The New Yorker has gotten the jump on everyone.
The cartoon in The New Yorker brings together all of the nasty hints and outright slander the right-wing has batted about in recent months about the Obamas: "Hussein," Obama's supposedly Islamic childhood, the "terrorist fist jab," Michelle Obama's comments about pride in her country, the sidling questions about her position in the African American anti-racist establishment, the Obamas' connection to the Reverend Wright, and the Reverend Wright's position on Palestine. The cartoon is a somewhat obvious and not clever venture into the territory of drawing (literally) a larger picture of what the media is doing to Obama's image.
The New Yorker has always done this with broader national concerns. And what bothers me about The New Yorker taking point on this discussion is not that they're stepping out of their bounds (they're not) but that the field is wide open because progressive people of color have not stepped up.
So now that The New Yorker has laid it all out in a very obvious way, what are media pundits of color doing? They are attacking The New Yorker for having done so at all. Even if you disagree with me that they have a perfect right to do so and that this falls clearly within their editorial purview, can you say that what they are presenting is wrong? Is their satirical picture of the media representation of the Obamas wrong? Have they misrepresented the media representation of the Obamas in some way? Is it overdrawn? Is it not strong enough?
If it is not, in essence, wrong, who the fuck cares who says it or how they say it? Why are we not jumping off of this first venture into the bigger picture to seize control of the national dialogue about race and make it dance to our tune? We've been starving on crumbs of media attention for decades. Why is everyone refusing this banquet?
And more importantly, does anyone seriously think that The New Yorker and other national media are going to stop grappling with the implications of a black president just because people of color squawk unproductively? If we don't step up and start controlling the national dialogue about race, someone else will--someone white and privileged will--and we will have lost the best opportunity ever presented to leaders of communities of color to create a broad platform and educate the whole country in one, long campaign.
Jesus Christ, what have we been fighting for? It's here. It's really, finally, here. Are we not going to turn away from the temptation of small-mindedness and rise to the challenge?