False Equivalency and Race: Some Problems with Artistic and Cultural Appropriation -or- Happy Black History Month: Pity poor Betsy DeVos


Before Black History Month is over, I wanted to comment on what I see as a rather misguided, albeit legitimate, message recently published by Belleville News-Democrat in the form of a political cartoon. Some of you may have seen the controversial image this month, but more than likely not, given the endless barrage of fluff flowing from Trump and his team. In doing so, let’s take time to reflect on a groundbreaking moment in the Civil Rights movement.

First, some context. Betsy DeVos tried to visit a public school in Washington D.C. earlier this month. She was turned away by a small group of protestors, some of whom were teachers at the school.

The Washington Post highlighted some of the concerns and reasons behind the protest against DeVos.

Before DeVos arrived, several dozen parents, activists and teachers union members gathered to show support for public schools.
Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said the union was supporting teachers concerned about the visit. “We want to share the message that we love our public school system,” Davis told reporters. “Public education teachers believe that public education is the cornerstone, it’s the foundation of our society.”
A teacher from a D.C. charter school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, carried a sign that said “Ms. DeVos: Our children are not props.”
“Betsy DeVos does not represent our students or our families here in D.C.,” the teacher said. “She doesn’t have our best interests at heart.”

DeVos nonetheless was able to enter the school to attend a meeting with school officials, though the event was not open to the press.

The actions by those seen in the video above prompted political cartoonist Glenn McCoy to create the following image:

“Trying to trash Betsy DeVos”, Glenn McCoy, February 13, 2017.

The art historian in me had an immediate and visceral reaction to this appropriation of one of Norman Rockwell’s most important works of art. Rockwell has long been subtly and not so subtly derided as a “commercial artist” or worse, a producer of kitschyAmericana”. While there is no doubt some truth to these accusations, his late work addressed very serious social issues confronting the country he loved.

For a man who in the 1930s had been too timid to challenge George Horace Lorimer’s edict that black people could be depicted only in service-industry jobs (a policy that Leyendecker, incidentally, had been courageous enough to flout), this was a belated and powerful acknowledgment of a part of American life that he had long ignored. It was also his last truly great, masterful piece of narrative painting. (Norman Rockwell’s American Dream)

Other viewers were likewise not particularly pleased with what McCoy had produced. One Twitter user felt compelled to make some minor additions.

Jason Pollock‏@DeathstalkerHAM
Hey @bellevillenewsd, #GlennMcCoy left something out of the political cartoon you ran, so I fixed it for you guys. Maybe you’ll run it?

Following the storm of criticism from various news outlets, including Fusion, Vox and The Huffington Post, as well as from Twitter, the artist responded with this statement:

My cartoon was about how, in this day and age, decades beyond the civil rights protests, it’s sad that people are still being denied the right to speak freely or do their jobs or enter public buildings because others disagree with who they are or how they think,” he wrote. “I’m surprised that you see ‘hate’ in this cartoon when I thought I was speaking out against hate. It’s a woman passively walking while being protected from angry protesters. Isn’t that what went down the other day when DeVos visited a school to do her job? You may disagree with her on issues but I didn’t see any hate coming from her. I did, however see hate going in the other direction which is what made me think of the Rockwell image. That was the only comparison I was drawing. The level of toxicity in today’s political climate has reached ridiculous levels.”

Despite my immediate indignation, I did feel some sympathy for what McCoy was trying to convey. I too am concerned with the level of vitriol and acrimony, divisiveness and partisanship we are currently enduring in America. I also felt just a bit of compassion for DeVos as she was escorted back to her vehicle amid shouts of “shame, shame”. However, given DeVos’s ideological views on public education and open advocacy for funneling public funds into charter and private schools, my empathy does not run deep.


Rockwell had remarried in 1961. His third wife, Molly Punderson, was something of a political firebrand who encouraged him to broaden his subject matter to address the burgeoning social issues of the day. He did this in the early 60s, ending his long relationship with the iconic Saturday Evening Post to take up more serious subject matter with Look magazine. By now, you are probably aware of which of Rockwell’s works McCoy co-opted to make his point, The Problem We All Live With (you know, racism).

[Rockwell’s] very first illustration for Look, published in January 1964, was The Problem We All Live With, based on the real-life story of Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old girl who, in 1960, had become the first African-American child to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans. It was a radical departure from the Rockwell that America knew and loved: an uncompromisingly disturbing scene of a pigtailed little innocent in a white dress walking straight ahead, preceded and trailed by pairs of faceless federal marshals (their bodies cropped off at shoulder height to emphasize the girl’s ultimate aloneness), all set against a backdrop of an institutional concrete wall defaced with a graffito of the word nigger and the gory splatter of a tomato that someone has hurled the girl’s way.
“The Problem We All Live With”, Norman Rockwell, 1964

Again, while I concur with some points made in McCoy’s above rejoinder, I don’t see “hate” in his cartoon; I see a complete lack of sensitivity about and ignorance of the event’s historical significance, captured so poignantly by Rockwell. McCoy’s inability to anticipate the negative reactions to such an appropriation makes this more than self-evident. So let me try to unpack why this might be rightfully seen as offensive to many viewers. Additionally it should be condemned as another instance of false equivalency that seems far too pervasive in recent years.

Ruby Bridges was 6 when she became the first African-American child to integrate a white Southern elementary school, having to be escorted to class by her mother and U.S. marshals due to violent mobs. Bridges’ bravery paved the way for continued Civil Rights action and she’s shared her story with future generations in educational forums.
  1. To equate the treatment of a grown white woman holding public office to that of a black child going to an all-white Southern school in 1960s America is patently absurd and frankly indefensible.
Ruby escorted to school in the morning.
U.S Marshals escorting Ruby from school in the afternoon.

Compare for yourself the two events, and consider also that Ruby endured this for several days. Watch Robert Cole describe his experience of seeing an angry mob assembling to intimidate Ruby and her stunningly mature response.

2. Betsy DeVos (a problem we all live with), the billionaire who would love to gut public schools, the very public schools that were desegregated so Ruby Bridges, perhaps the most courageous six year old you’ve ever seen, could attend an all-white school five blocks from her home, rather than the all-black school several miles away. The educational policies DeVos supports, whether intentional or not, conjure up memories of the post-Brown v. Board of Education strategies in the South.

Almost immediately after Brown, white Southerners met the decision with “massive resistance.” In Virginia, segregationist Democrats pushed sweeping educational changes to combat integration. In 1956, the Commission on Public Education — convened by Gov. Thomas Stanley — asked the General Assembly to repeal compulsory education, empower the governor to close public schools, and provide vouchers to parents to enroll their children in segregated private schools. In the next few years, whites would open “segregation academies” across the state, while closing public schools to block integration. (Still Separate and Unequal)

3. That the artist released the cartoon during Black History Month adds a further layer of irony and offense. Obviously, since the protest against DeVos occurred in February, McCoy’s visual commentary would need to be published soon thereafter. However, the entire situation smacks of a deep cultural insensitivity. The image further (falsely) equates the worst racial epithet in the English language, scrawled across the wall in Rockwell’s illustration, with that of “Conservative”. To suggest that the “negative connotations” associated with the label “conservative” is in any way comparable to that of the psychologically destructive term “nigger” simply defies credulity.

In a less offensive, but equally untenable analogy, McCoy has replaced the letters “K.K.K.” with “N.E.A.”. Once again, the idea that an educational organization and union is somehow tantamount a white supremacist terror organization confounds the mind.

I want to end by stating clearly that I fully support the First Amendment right of McCoy to engage in such political speech. My only hope is that if he is sincere in his belief that the “level of toxicity in today’s political climate has reached ridiculous levels”, he might take more time to consider the full ramifications of his commentaries. I hope he is able to understand why critics would be angry, upset, offended or outraged by his appropriation of an important work of Civil Rights art and especially the event that inspired it. To depict a woman born to wealth and power as being victimized in any way equivalent to a six-year-old child born to poverty in the segregated South, to illiterate parents, is no way to bridge the divide that seems to vex him.

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Addendum:
It is worth noting that in 2009, another political cartoon with a somewhat(?) similar message was published by Mike Lester. This seems to call into question the “originality” of McCoy’s work.

It was discussed on the Reading is for Snobs in 2012. Other than this and a few messages boards, it appears to have cause little controversy. Of course this might have something to do with the rather opaque political commentary being made. I for one, am not quite sure what Lester is trying to say exactly.