The Cultural Politics Of The New Yorker Cover

07/14/2008 07:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Shouldn't blacks be fair game for political satire? At first blush, this seems like an easy question to answer. Shouldn't we, and other minorities, be treated equally? Isn't that what the struggle for equality has been all about?

Well, the answer is not so easy and clear-cut. Actually I think the root of the major blow-up this week over the controversial New Yorker cover depicting the Obamas as America-hating secret terrorists is that the white people who run the magazine simply don't understand you can't satirize minorities and women in the same way that you do white men. It is a fact, albeit an ironic and unfortunate one, that is lost on the cover artist and many on the left who in their liberal righteousness and detached intellectualism don't seem to understand. Sure, in theory the Obamas and any minority, should be fair game for such high-minded satire. But here is where intellect-based liberalism blinds so many to plain old common sense.

To satirize the Obamas the way The New Yorker did, and then to defend it as what they've always done, to ask that we look at how they've skewered the current President Bush and other whites, is to miss the boat entirely. Barack and Michelle Obama have incredibly and deeply intense cultural, racial and even religious bigotry leveled at them. It is a part of their daily life as well as their political campaign, and impacts them and everyone that is in the same demographic in a way that no political satire of George Bush ever could.

Satire directed at people in power, both currently and historically, do not have the same impact -- potential and real -- that is does on people who historically have been the brunt of very real physical and emotional suffering. When you satirize George Bush, all white people are not implicated. That has never been part of the language of political satire in this country. It is clear that satire about one white man is just that.

But thanks to the history of racism in this country, it is foolish not to realize that a caricature of a Black woman and man (as Barack is perceived and considers himself to be) is also a caricature of every person that looks like them. Equally as important to understanding the broadness and danger involved when whites try to do satire of minorities is understanding that the implied humor or wittiness that is generally inherent in most satire is simply impossible when the root of the satire is based on something so hurtful as racism, something that is not an abstract concept for most minorities. Racism and bigotry are not intellectually free-floating discussions for Blacks. It is easy to laugh and chuckle at such cerebral satire when your life is not impacted by the depiction or the reality behind it. Because at the end of the day and at the end of this campaign season, Black men and women, not just Michelle and Barack, will still have to wake up every day and navigate a world where these images are not a joke but a real perception of who they are.

And that's just not funny.