Sad to say, even in 2007, it's still difficult to have a frank discussion about race. It's obviously still an important and volatile issue but it's also very touchy for many people so rather than dealing with the complex issues involved, it usually gets brushed away. When someone does bring it up, all kinds of recriminations and accusations and finger-pointing follow it. All of that hardens the impression that it's best to not talk about these things seriously, instead smoothing over things with platitudes or sweeping everything under the rug and pretending it's not there. What got me thinking about this recently was an NME article noting that the band TV on the Radio lashed out at the Village Voice for their Pazz and Jop cover cartoon where Bob Dylan rides a mower over an African-American band member (which looks a lot like singer/guitarist Kyp Malone). So is this a legitimate case of racism?
Not surprisingly, this is never an easy issue to sort out. Take a close look at Perna letter. The issues he brings up are serious- he cites two fairly recent hate-crime murders and associates the Voice illustration with this. Do you think he makes a good point or he is being over-the-top in his associations? I don't know that there's a solid right or wrong answer to that- it's going to depend on your own perspective. I have to admit that I think it's a little over the top. If I wasn't white, would I still feel that way? Maybe not.
One important consideration is intent. The Village Voice has been a bastion of liberal thought for decades now and remains that way even under its new ownership, though less brazen about it for sure (disclosure: I write for the Voice sometimes though I definitely don't always agree with their policies, especially recently otherwise). On the surface, it doesn't make sense for the Voice to even insinuate a racist subtext with such an illustration but in a letter to the Voice, TVOTR member Martin Perna challenges this, saying "the level of ignorance and racism that persists in leftist institutions like the Voice that continue to posture as hip and progressive." Attacking the Voice is one thing but he takes a broad swipe at "leftist institutions" as if to say that racism is prevalent there. But isn't this the exact same complaint that Rush Limbaugh made recently? And is that to say the right-wing institutions are clean when it comes to racist perspectives (even though they mostly fight against quotas and affirmitive action)?
So should we instead wonder if the cover was an unintentional racial swipe? Perna angrily compares the cover to recent lynching incidents. Look at it this way- if you were in cartoon on the cover of a well-known publication and someone was running you over, how would you feel about that? Most likely, you'd be pretty angry. The cover was meant to show Dylan symbolically beating TVOTR in the Pazz poll but the question then is this: was the way they depicted it appropriate? They could have had Dylan and a TVOTR member in a ring with the latter getting punched or even just some grand illustration of Dylan to show that he won. The fact that they went for a conflict cover where Dylan whups up on someone is more dramatic than just having a picture of himself alone. It's likely that ANY photo of Dylan attacking/hitting someone in the band would have brought about the same response. Also, consider it an interesting irony that if many of the younger writers/voters hadn't gravitated to the Idolator poll this year, TVOTR probably would have beaten Dylan in the Pazz poll itself and the illustration would have looked very different as such.
(Also, as several other blogs have pointed out, the cartoon is well... cartoonish and ridiculously exaggerated, maybe even making a bad turn against Dylan by giving him an extra large nose)
Sometimes another way to weigh if something is truly racist is substituting race in that particular situation. For instance, let's say in this year's Pazz poll, Dylan's record had beaten a new Eminem release (I know, but this is hypothetical). If ol' Bob had been running Em over with a tractor, no one except Em's fans would shrug about it. Also, if the Voice had depicted Bob doing something much more blatant to a TVOTR member, that would be different too- but even the unspeakably scummy rat-bastards of the Klu Klux Klan are media savvy enough today not to promote any image of lynching, even for the supposedly dreaded illegal immigrants that they claim are ruining America.
Also, what if TVOTR had beaten Dylan in the poll and they had an image of the band beating up Dylan? Again, except for his fans, no one would really cry foul over this. It reminds me of a news story of the Whitney Bi-ennial where a curator was showing off images and slogans that lashed out at caucasians. The reporter asked if it would be acceptable to flip the idea and instead have images or slogans that denegrated minorities instead. The curator angrily snapped back that she would never do that (for the record, the curator and reporter were both white). At one level, it seems unfair that such baiting and hate can only go one way (much less that it shouldn't happen at all!) but there's also the contention that whites have historically beat up on Africans and their descendants for so long that any idea or notion of perpetuating this is seen as repugnant. Again, my own notion is that ANY kind of race baiting or warring is a terrible thing and it helps no one (i.e. the whole idea of "ethnic cleansing").
Which leads back to the question of whether the Voice cover cartoon is indeed racist or not. It's not an easy call. If you say "yes," then you get pelted as a overly sensitive reactionary. If you say "no," you risk getting labelled as a racist yourself. Maybe it's not going out on much of a limb but I would have to side with the later group and say that the cartoon was not intentionally meant to have any racist connotations to it. I would add that I understand how it could be perceived otherwise (especially by the band) but in the end, I believe that context is the strongest way to measure these kind of things. Should the Voice's editorial board been more sensitive about how they presented this image? I'd say so. Like it or not, this kind of image still has implications to it that aren't readily obvious.
Having said that, it's obvious that this debate is not going to be easily resolved. There's going to be strong voices advocating each position and the thought of this will linger for a while. It'll effect not just the Voice and TVOTR in different ways but also readers of the paper and fans of the band and not just in the way that some readers might be turned off from the band now or that the group's fans will boycott the paper (though both scenarios may happen) but also how the readers, fans and spectators continue to view this debate.
The issue isn't going to go away and I have to say that's not necessarily a bad thing- we need more debate and open discussion about this. In many ways, the idea of a melting pot is still optimistic rhetoric and to use another old hoary image, unless we keep trying to deal with the issue of race directly, the pot's gonna boil over.