Here's a cartoon about Sotomayor that's making the blog-rounds this week. This image strikes me as clearly sexist, and its racism seems obvious as well. But then, does the latter actually depend on how you read it?
Chip Bok @ The Oklahoman
It seems to me that the first problem with this cartoon is that it's ambiguous. A quick interpretation for many would be That's racist!, because it depicts a Latina as a piñata (and also depicts her hanging from what looks like a noose) and it plunks a Mexican stereotype on the head of Obama.
Who is not Mexican, but rather . . . African American.
Okaaaaaaay. . .
As I said, whatever this cartoon means can quickly become ambiguous. Here's one possible reading, given the presence of the rather confused elephants/Republicans:
Obama's selection of a Hispanic/Latin American woman was at least in part racially motivated, but that's because he knew that Republicans would reflexively attack her in terms of race, by dredging up all sorts of stereotypes about her (as represented by the piñata and sombrero). Thus, the cartoon represents Obama cleverly tricking Republicans into beating up on Sotomayor, making themselves look bad in the process.
That the cartoonist depicts the Republicans as hesitant, rather than rabidly ready to take the bait, suggests that he gives them some credit for being able to at least check their racist impulses. Or maybe, given the multiple cameras pointed at the scene, for knowing that they'll be seen as racist if they "beat up" Sotomayor in interviews, newspaper columns, and then the confirmation hearings.
That's one way to interpret this depiction of a racially charged political moment, the relative calm before Sotomayor's confirmation hearings. By this reading, the cartoon doesn't seem to land squarely on either side of the political spectrum (such as it is in the American corporate press, which almost always equates "Right" and "Left" merely with "Republican" and "Democratic").
This reading would also seem to absolve the cartoon, and the cartoonist, from charges of racism, because his depiction of blatantly racist stereotypes is distanced in a way. The stereotypes are supposed to be in Republicans' heads, and maybe in Obama's (because he knows they're in Republicans' heads), and not in the head of the cartoonist. He's depicting them, that is, ironically. Which would mean it's okay that the piñata and the sombrero are there, and that they're stereotypically attached to Mexico, instead of to Sotomayor's actual background place, Puerto Rico.
However, as anyone who's been paying attention to the new ways that racism works these days knows, ironic racism is still, basically, racism. "Hipster racism" is a good example, as exemplified by such purveyors as Asher Roth, Amy Sedaris, John Oliver, or a has-been trying to make a comeback with "I'm not REALLY a racist" humor, Paulie Shore.
Is this a hipster cartoon?
Maybe. But even if you read it that way, the imagery it contains does not escape the charge of "racism" just because its racist imagery is portrayed ironically. It still circulates, and thus perpetuates, racist imagery.
You could also read the cartoon as more "conservative," which actually makes sense, given the particular cartoonist, Chris Bok. A look at other cartoons on his site, Bokbluster, demonstrates that Bok has a conservative bent. For instance, here's his take on the recent murder of Dr. George Tiller, who was killed because he performed late-term abortions:
Get it? Sure, Tiller's murder was heinous, but what's really important is that late-term abortions are heinous too. (Bok adds below this image on his blog, "When Obama started talking about heinous acts of violence I didn’t know if he was talking about Dr. Tiller’s murder or his job description.")
Here's what Bok wrote on his blog about his "Sotomayor-as-piñata" effort:
The president is all about minority life experience -- except in the case of Clarence Thomas, as WSJ’s Kimberley Strassel rudely points out by quoting him. As for Judge Sotomayor’s non-Latina qualifications, Jeffery Rosen in TNR says he’s been told she’s, “not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench”. Gallup, however, shows that the public likes her and David Broder thinks the president once again has republicans right where he wants them.
Like the cartoon, not exactly straightforward, but I think Bok is still distancing himself here from the cartoon's blatantly racism imagery. Instead of putting the racism in the Republican's heads, he's putting it solely in Obama's head -- Obama is supposedly deploying racist stereotypes, merely by choosing a Latina nominee.
Bok seems to be saying, "Republicans wouldn't say anything racist; it's Obama who's the racist, because his affirmative-action Latina pick is a cynical attempt to bait Republicans into doing something racist."
Which still doesn't make the cartoon's racism okay (and probably makes it worse). Ironic racism from Conservatives is no less fundamentally racist than it is from hipsters.