Racism and Comics: Good Intentions Aren't Enough

Cartoonist Ted Rall didn't mean to offend with his ape-like depiction of Barack Obama, but he did ignore cartoons' history of spreading harmful, stereotypical images of black people.
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Controversial cartoons from Ted Rall, Barry Blitt at The New Yorker, and Carlos Latuff at Black Commentator.

Comics has a long history of ugly, racist caricature. Many of the most important and influential cartoonists used blackface iconography as a regular, central part of their work. Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, one of the most acclaimed classic comic strips (paid tribute to last year with a clever Google doodle) featured as one of its main characters the Jungle Imp, an unconscionable blackface African stereotype. Hergé used blackface caricature throughout his work, but especially in the second Tintin volume, Tintin in the Congo. The sidekick in Will Eisner's famous The Spirit was the unfortunately named Ebony White. R. Crumb's use of racist iconography is notorious, and while it is to some extent satirical, it is also often simply meant to be "funny" in the way that racist iconography is often presented as "funny" because some people find it amusing to laugh at caricatures of black people. Thomas Nast used racist caricature specifically to mock Reconstruction governments after the Civil War. And these are only the most obvious and influential examples—others abound.

To this depressing roll call, liberal cartoonist Ted Rall has now accidentally added his name. Last week he posted a drawing mocking President Obama to the website Daily Kos. Daily Kos rejected it, writing:

Your depiction of Barack Obama as ape-like is intolerable. Being critical of Obama is not the problem. Through British and American history, blacks have been subjected to racist depictions of themselves as monkeys and apes. No excuse is acceptable for replicating that history no matter what your intent. If it happens again, your posting privileges will be suspended.

Rall, whose contributions to Daily Kos were unpaid, responded by saying that, "Anyone familiar with me and my work knows I’m not racist. My criticisms of the president are unrelated to his race, and to say otherwise in the absence of evidence is disgusting." He added, "my editors at a variety of American newspapers, magazines and websites, almost all of whom are left of center politically, some of whom are black and many of whom voted for Obama, have never expressed the slightest concern about the way I draw the president."

There's not much question here of Rall's intent. Rall says he didn't mean a racial slur, and Daily Kos goes out of its way to say that they are not claiming he was purposefully linking Obama to animalistic stereotypes of black people. Moreover, as anyone who has ever seen Rall's cartoons is aware, his drawing skill is rudimentary at best. There is every reason to believe Rall did not intend the cartoon to look the way it looks.

Unfortunately, as Daily Kos says, the way it looks is, in fact, as if Rall is referencing, or working within, comics' extensive history of racist caricature. The nose, in particular, has far less to do with Barack Obama's actual nose than with the racist fantasies of blackface iconography. The fact that those racist fantasies have become so intertwined with the exaggerated language of caricature and cartooning isn't Rall's fault. But it doesn't let him off the hook either.

The fact is, comics history in this regard is so extensive, and so vile, that, at this point, good intentions aren't sufficient. Racism is such a staple of cartooning's visual grammar that a comics creator who is representing black people needs to deliberately choose not deal in racist caricature. This should not be a huge burden. Though, again, the mainstream of comics caricature has been racist, there are alternative traditions and approaches. Black cartoonists from Alan Dunn to Aaron McGruder to Barry Caldwell and Jennifer Cruté have drawn black people in comic strips without crassly evoking blackface; so, I'd argue have white cartoonists like Berke Breathed. If Rall had cared to put in the time and thought and effort, he could have used predecessors such as these to make a comic strip that consciously avoided racial caricature, rather than one that inadvertently stumbled into it.

Even this stumbling would have been forgivable had Rall used the Daily Kos rejection to rethink his approach and try to do better. Instead he cried censorship and loudly declaimed the innocence of his intentions. But his intentions were never at issue. What is at issue is his relationship to the tradition of cartooning, and his ability to handle that history in a way that isn't blatantly stupid and offensive. As Daily Kos says, black people have routinely in America been mocked and pilloried as subhuman and animalistic, and that history is still regularly accessed in debates about welfare, poverty, violence, and (most pointedly for this discussion) Obama's Americanness. Images of black people are one way that those stereotypes have been, and continue to be, disseminated.

Racism is a past, a structure, and in this case an iconography, and that history makes demands not just on people of color but also, and especially, on white people. Part of being an artist is dealing intelligently with those demands—by, for example, and at a minimum, not blandly acquiescing to racist tropes simply because you haven't thought about what you're doing. By this metric, Rall's cartoon is a failure.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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