I’ve been of many minds about this week’s New Yorker cover — I wrote the piece below yesterday but held back from publishing it because, well, on the face of it, it’s not exactly racist, and it is satire after all. But in some ways the furor is itself worth considering, and so I put this out there in, perhaps, the same spirit as the New Yorker put out their cover:
On the night of Barack Obama’s primary victory in South Carolina, thousands of us who gathered at the victory rally spontaneously erupted in the chant, “Race doesn’t matter!” This wasn’t a profession of faith so much as a willing suspension of disbelief: South Carolina’s January primary also marked the place and time when race did start to matter in the Presidential campaign.
Race matters, as the conflation of “white” with “American” illustrates. But in critiquing that attitude, Barry Blitt’s cover illustration for this week’s New Yorker commits the same error of judgment that a white man who uses the N-word among black friends would commit if he spoke in the same way among strangers. It’s the kind of faux passé that the privileged have the luxury of committing, and therefore the responsibility not to.
Privilege underlies the even deeper problem of the cover, which is the way it bounces its satire off a deep contempt for Michael Moore’s “stupid white men.” Moore, at least, could profess to be of the group he mocks; not so for the New Yorker. Thus the magazine does Obama few favors, instead cementing the perception that his campaign is fueled by limousine liberalism. But it also does itself a serious disfavor, demonstrating not just disdain for but also ignorance of these other Americans. Pauline Kael didn’t know anyone who voted for Nixon; I doubt the staff of the New Yorker know anyone who thinks Obama is Muslim. Obama calls for understanding over condemnation, and I hope his supporters – especially the privileged ones – will consider what kinds of attitudinal sacrifices such a politics would entail.