Anti Affirmative Action Cartoon On This Week's New Yorker

Since it’s a magazine that’s pretty solidly liberal, and which usually avoids overt issue cartoons on its cover, I was pretty surprised by the current New Yorker cover, which seems to me to be a pretty blatantly anti-affirmative action piece.

The drawing, by Edward Sorel (one of my favorite current illustrators), is entitled “musical chairs” and shows a bunch of young folks in graduate gowns playing musical chairs.The most central three figures are a white man with a frightened, vulnerable expression surrounded by two smirking, devious-looking figures, one a black man and one a white woman; the black man and white woman have both gotten seats, meaning the central white male figure is out of the game.

In the background, this general theme is repeated – distressed white men, aggressive women or blacks – plus a black woman and a white woman struggle with each other for control of the same chair. (Less prominently positioned, two probably-white guys on the sides of the image have gotten chairs and are happy). In the foreground, a white male tenured professor happily controls the music.

New Yorker cover "Musical Chairs" by Edward Sorel, issue dated June 5 2006

I keep on thinking “surely they wouldn’t have.” But the “look how affirmative action hurts white men” interpretation of the cover is so obvious, it’s hard to imagine how Sorel and the New Yorker editors could have missed it.

This entry posted in Affirmative Action, Cartooning & comics, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

48 Responses to Anti Affirmative Action Cartoon On This Week's New Yorker

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  6. 6
    plunky says:

    I think you’re reading too much into it. It looks much more like a musical chairs game for graduates getting jobs, or into grad school or something. And just commenting on how a subset of graduates get to “move up” well enough regardless of race. The woman and the black man have their hands on chair backs, but the music hasn’t stopped yet…so they’ll have to keep going.

  7. 7
    ck says:

    Yeah, I agree with plunky. I think that it is just a comment on grads in general.

  8. 8
    Ampersand says:

    Plunky, you’ve misread the art. The pianist has his hands lifted way off the keyboard- he’s stopped playing.

    And the students are definitely sitting down or seated – the black guy has his rear almost all the way into a chair, and the white woman has her hip stuck onto a chair. The white guy furthest to the right on the illustration is seated in a chair, beyond any doubt – his rear is shown actually in the chair seat.

  9. 9
    the15th says:

    Hard to imagine how a magazine whose bylines are known for being about 85 percent male could have missed this.

  10. 10
    plunky says:

    Hrm, you could be right about the music stopping. I still think you’re wrong about the AA part though. As you say, the only person with their ass firmly planted is a white dood.

  11. 11
    Mandolin says:

    The subtext looks pretty clear to me. The expressions on the faces of the women and the non-whites are malevolent.

  12. 12
    Rachel S. says:

    Yeah, but the white women and Black women are fighting over a seat as are the White man and Black man in the front.

    On another note, I have to say…for some reason, I never (well rarely) get cartoons. I remember it was the one thing in art class that I was horrible at. But since a real expert (Amp) has interpreted it for me. I think I get it. :)

  13. 13
    beth says:

    the guy’s hands are above the keyboard but it doesn’t mean he’s stopped playing. especially in a lively piece, pianists lift their hands all the time. the students are ABOUT to sit down, from my perspective, unless they all just have freakishly tall torsos and are still head and shoulders above the chairs despite sitting down in them. and the black woman and the white woman are fighting over a chair they’re both sitting in? while facing backwards? quite a trick. a detail as small as the pianist’s hands you tout as solid evidence, while the two white men who have found chairs and are happy you dismiss because they are “less prominently positioned.”

    i don’t necessarily disagree with your interpretation, but i point those things out because it is still a *matter* of interpretation. just because someone disagrees with your interpretation doesn’t mean you should tell them they’ve “misread the art.” please. that’s just obnoxious.

  14. 14
    Phoebe says:

    For what it’s worth, I looked at that cover for a long time when it arrived, and I didn’t see an anti-affirmative-action message either. I could be wrong, of course, but I’m not a white man, and I didn’t see White Men Being Denied Places By Uppity Women and People of Color. I just saw a harsh game, and a fairly diverse bunch of competitors.

    One possibility, it seems to me, is that an attempt was being made to avoid a message about race or gender. If you’d had white men pulling chairs away from women and people of color, it would have been readable as a morality play about discrimination. If you’d had all white men, it would have been readable as consigning the female and non-white to invisibility.

    I don’t want to be insensitive, or ignore legitimate concerns. With that said, though, I’m not sure I see a way this cartoon could have been done without being readable in some way that might cause someone offense. And if that’s the case, it might be better to just assume goodwill.

  15. 15
    Nathaniel says:

    WTF? It’s academic musical chairs (something everyone in academia, where the New Yorker is widely read, will immediately recognize), it’s certainly not an “issue” cover about AA or anything else.

    With all due respect, this is about on the same level as looking for numerological clues in the Bible and getting personally offended by what you deduce.

  16. 16
    Kevin Moore says:

    I tend to favor Phoebe’s interpretation for the reasons she has stated. There are a couple of happy white men who have found places to sit, while everyone else, regardless of sex and ethnicity, struggles to sit down. My reading of the two figures in back are two women, one white, one black, fighting over a chair, not a white woman and a black man. But I do agree with Barry that the piano player has stopped playing. His hands are perpendicular to the keys, not just raised up in the air.

    That said, I think Sorel was simply making a joke out of the competitive nature of job hunting after graduation and trying to portray a diverse graduating class. That there might be some unintended implications arising from that is always a risk in art. Artists goof. Editors goof. If Sorel wanted to make a really clear statement about affirmative action, pro or con, it would be much more obvious than this.

  17. 17
    cooper says:

    If anything it’s about…

    In the foreground, a white male tenured professor happily controls the music.

  18. 18
    Nathaniel says:

    Just to elaborate more, let me clarify that I’m a professional illustrator. Now if you’re doing a cover for a magazine like this, you’ll have central figures — as Ampersand points out, a woman, a man, and a black man or woman. That’s required in any group to show diversity.

    So, Ampersand is complaining that the black man got the chair, which makes the message anti-affirmative action (why do you assume he didn’t earn the chair?). But if the white woman got the chair, would that be anti-affirmative action too? Or racist? Surely the white man can’t get the most prominent chair, that’s anti-affirmative action (because white guys are out-performing blacks and women), or maybe it’s pro-affirmative action (because white guys have numerical and cultural advantage towards getting chairs?).

    You can clearly see that for anyone who’s going to sit around and dissect a simple cartoon about academia, you can find SOME way to be offended, because by their nature cartoons are meant to be read into by the viewer, otherwise there’s no “aha!” moment that makes it amusing. There’s no neutral way to represent people winning and losing in an image without having someone overanalyze it.

  19. 19
    Q. Pheevr says:

    When I first looked at the magazine cover (which was before I saw this post), I didn’t see any subtext about affirmative action; I just saw a bunch of graduands playing musical chairs. Some of them look worried, and some of them look aggressive, and it never even occurred to me to look for a pattern.

    So if Sorel is trying to promulgate an anti-affirmative action message here, it flew right over the head of at least one subscriber. (I did, however, notice the sadistic grin on the face of the organist.)

  20. 20
    Ampersand says:

    Anyone who assumes that I’m offended by the cartoon, or that I’m reading “bad motives” into it, should stop assuming that because a cartoon may contain a message I don’t agree with, I am therefore offended by it or believe the cartoonist has failed to exhibit goodwill.

    If I’m right about what the cartoon means – and I admit I could be mistaken – then it doesn’t mean I’m offended (Nathanial), or that I think Sorel doesn’t have goodwill (Pheobe). It means that I disagree with him about a particular issue. I can disagree with him about an issue without being offended, and without thinking he’s acting in bad faith.


  21. 21
    tekanji says:

    What all the people disagreeing are failing to notice is that, despite possible intentions, despite whether it’s supposed to be about AA or not, the only malevolent looking characters are minorities (black and/or female). In the Disney-esque way, this sets up the two prominent surprised white men as innocent victims and the two prominent aggressive people as evil.

    The latter of which, by the way, would support an argument implying that they didn’t “earn” the chairs. Since they’re ruthless and the whites are clearly surprised, it would logically follow that the implication is that they have grabbed the chair from the innocent whites. Whether or not that was the intention, I think, is irrelevant.

    Images like these seep into our minds and, even if they don’t influence us on a conscious level, they certainly will contribute to the unnamable unease that we feel when things like AA are discussed or we’re talking to/about minorities who go to college, get jobs, etc.

  22. 22
    Mandolin says:

    Ditto tekanji. (though I’d give the cartoonist more credit/blame for intentionality.)

  23. 23
    Charles says:

    Of course, you could also read the impressively taken aback expression and completely ineffectual body language of the central (white-male) figure as a sign that he has been floating along in the expectation that his race and gender privelege will ensure that he is going to get a seat, and that he is now flummoxed to have discovered that the situation is actually a meritocracy.

    The only real problem I see with the AA reading is that there is actually nothing to suggest AA in this image: nothing suggests that the white guy in the center of the picture has lost out on the seat through anything but his own incompetence, nothing suggests that the two black people or any of the women have gained access to the chairs through anything except luck of position and skill.

    It is certainly notable that none of the 3 figures that are clearly intended to be read as white men (the 3 figures along the right hand side are ambiguously gendered) have expressions which suggest hostility (1 is happy, 1 is alarmed, and 1 is flabergasted), while the black man and all four clearly female figures have expressions that range from neutral to hostile.

    Oh, (completely incidentally), does the shade of pink in the lining of the robes and the professor’s robe’s piping tell us which university this is?

    And the music has definitely stopped. Otherwise the image makes no sense.

  24. 24
    Rachel S. says:

    Charles said, “Oh, (completely incidentally), does the shade of pink in the lining of the robes and the professor’s robe’s piping tell us which university this is?”

    Sort of, I’m not sure which school has those colors, but there are may schools with similar colors of robes.

    Amp, Dude why do you say tenured professor? I don’t get that one.

  25. I am all confused now — except that I will join the chorus to agree that the music has definitely stopped playing. The professor not only has his hands up but he is looking over his shoulder to see how the students do.

  26. 26
    Ampersand says:

    Rachel wrote:

    Amp, Dude why do you say tenured professor?

    Cartoon-Icon-wise, a white-haired man is an academic gown is a professor until proved otherwise.

    And he looks so content, I assume he must be tenured. :-)

    * * *

    Nathaniel, I don’t agree that it’s unreasonable to wonder if this image is about AA; nor do I agree that there was nothing Sorel could have done to avoid that impression. The plight of the poor white man losing his place is the central emotional image of most anti-AA thought; but nothing forced Sorel to make a poor put-upon white man losing out the central image of his drawing (the guy’s even in a halo). Nor did he have to make the winners – the folks in the chairs – look malicious.

    Given all that, the “is ths about AA” question is hardly as ridiculous a strech as the other examples you give, Nathaniel.

    I’m a cartoonist, and I’m sensitive to the fact that it sometimes seems that nothing we do can avoid interpretation. But I’m also aware of the fact that there are some obvious misreadings that I can and do take steps to avoid.

  27. 27
    Ragnell says:

    The professor looks malicious. He’s playing them against each other.

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  29. 28
    nexyjo says:

    that’s one of the wonderful things about art – each of us can be moved by a particular work, walk away with our own interpretation, and none of us are wrong – even if our personal interpretations were not intended by the work’s creator. in many cases, the work keeps on giving, as we continue to muse, discuss, revisit, or any combination of those activities. in my mind, the value of a particular work is measured by its ability to spark thought in the observer (or listener, or really, the consumer of that work), and in this case, i see sorel’s piece as offering quite a bit of value.

    that said, i see in this piece that the music has stopped, and the individuals are scrambling for the chairs. like amp, i also see the devious smirks on the black man and white woman as each of them out positions the white men next to them in getting the closest chair. that image is front and center, and speaks loudest to me. whether the work is a statment on affirmative action, i believe is really up to the observer to determine. i believe that art, over language, offers multiple valid meanings in virtually all cases. thank you amp, for giving this work greater meaning to me.

  30. 29
    curiousgyrl says:

    the professor also has his ‘stripes’–check out his gown

  31. 30
    Rachel S. says:

    Yeah, he’s definitely a professor, but the part I wondered about was the tenure part. Anybody with a PhD gets stripes, but there is no special outfit for tenured folks. I guess once could deduce from his age that he is probably tenured. And of course, the whole idea that he’s got nothing to worry about given his life time job security.

  32. 31
    Heart says:

    Okay this is timely– I was going to blog about this Horsey cartoon that was in yesterday’s P-I. The issue Horsey was commenting on is:

    An outpouring of criticism forced Seattle Public Schools on Thursday to pull a Web site that viewed planning for the future, emphasizing individualism and defining standard English as examples of cultural racism.

    The message had appeared under an “equity and race relations” section of the district’s Web site and was mentioned Thursday in an opinion piece by a Libertarian writer in the Seattle P-I. Criticism of the site has been building in the world of blogs for weeks.

    In its place Thursday was a message that the site will be revised to “provide more context to reader around the work that Seattle Public Schools is doing to address institutional racism.”

    That message, written by Caprice Hollins, the district’s director of equity and race relations, said the site wasn’t intended to “develop an ‘us against them’ mind-set.”

    But she may have stepped into a second controversy by saying the site also wasn’t intended “to hold onto unsuccessful concepts such as melting pot or colorblind mentality.”

    Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, was the author of Thursday’s opinion piece. Among other things, he drew from the site’s definition of cultural racism.

    “Those aspects of society that overtly and covertly attribute value and normality to white people and whiteness, and devalue, stereotype, and label people of color as ‘other,’ different, less than, or render them invisible. Examples of these norms include defining white skin tones as nude or flesh colored, having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology, defining one form of English as standard, and identifying only Whites as great writers or composers,” the definition said.

    “It was very ideologically charged,” Coulson said Thursday. “It was left of center by definition, criticizing individualism as racism and advocating a collective ideology. You can’t get much more red versus blue than that; it’s incredibly polarizing. That everyone who thinks in terms of individualism is racist?” Article here

    Huh? The heck. Horsey is an all-his-life leftist/progressive. I went to school at the UW with him in the 60s-early 70s, he cartooned for the UW Daily then, and his cartoons and manner of living have been consistently left. So what the heck is he saying?!


  33. 32
    Heart says:

    Oh, and the title of that cartoon was, “Seattle School District’s Definition of Racism.”


  34. 33
    Karolena says:

    It looks satirical to me. I can’t imagine the those exaggerated malevolent expressions are actually meant to represent malevolence; it seems to me like the cartoon is representing a distorted worldview.

  35. I didn’t even think that the not-White-males in the cartoon were supposed to look malevolent. Well, what can you expect ? I’m still scrubbing blood off the moldings over the whole Danish cartoon thing– and that was already eons ago in internet-time.

    I live for the day when someone will think my work has enough depth to it to worry over my possible ulterior motives in composing it. :p

  36. 35
    Seattle Man says:

    It’s all about homophobia, really. Don’t you see the black guy looking back to the white guy with a curious look? All the white guy did was to get out of step — they don’t have rhythm, you know — and the black guy is looking back wondering if this is a sexual come-on.

    No, it’s all about predatory females looking for a husband. See the woman at front left just about to grab the guy with no rhythm? Even at graduation with honors from a prestigious university, all she can do is think about getting married and she is so worried she’ll even take a guy who can’t dance.

    No, it’s all about anti-Asian prejudice. None are even pictured symbolizing — obviously — that they can’t even get into the game because of the prjudice against them in admissions programs at major schools, especially in engineering and math.

    Yes. I am just joking. I don’t think this cartoon means much more than it’s tough to even get started in a career much less climb to the top of the greasy pole.


    And Heart, as to the Horsey cartoon, I think he has missed the point somewhere; I am also not sure what he is saying but it has little to do with the Seattle Schools web pages on racism, which definitely had a very clear POV of anti-individualism combined with (if you can reconcile it) attack on majority standards such as “future time orientation.”

  37. 36
    Wally Whateley says:

    I agree with Amp. The message of the cartoon is very clear. “Ohh, those horrible minorities, denying our frightened white brethren their proper place!” I’m embarrassed for the cartoonist that he didn’t do a better job of hiding his message, frankly.

  38. 37
    cafl says:

    To me, the most noticeable thing about the cartoon is that there aren’t enough chairs (jobs), which results in the bumping aside and struggle to get the ones that are there.

  39. 38
    Tuomas says:

    I don’t agree on the AA interpretation.

    The drawing does not have any specific chairs for black people and women that white men can not get, instead the white guy in the center simply lost against a black man and a woman. For the picture to be Anti-AA, someone other than the black man or the woman would have ordained the seats for them (hmm, unless one would judge that the piano player specifically, and maliciously stopped playing at the time that would ensure that the white guy won’t get a chair).

    For one, it makes the recipients of AA somehow morally responsible for the harm created to those not receiving it, which I believe only an outright misogynists and a racist would do — it is not the fault of minorities that there is a different standard. The black man is not morally responsible for the actions of a college etc. that decides to let him in due to AA, the college is.

    The plight of the poor white man losing his place is the central emotional image of most anti-AA thought;

    With all due respect, I don’t think you are the best person to descibe the emotional images of anti-AA thought any more than I (anti-AA) would be to descibe pro-AA thought.

  40. 39
    CaptDMO says:

    Does ANYONE here have any passing knowledge of The New Yorker’s history of
    seasonally related covers? How about the school of art often reflected both on their
    covers AND with their captioned cartoons? With it’s “incidental” art? With the artwork
    they lean toward to accompany story headers.
    Is ANYONE familiar with Sorel’s history or body of work? Anyone think to contact the artist,
    or the editors, and ask?

    If anyone truly needs to be ever vigilent for the signs of the arrival of the beast
    could you please wait until next Tuesday! You’ll still be using an electron microscope,
    but it will be boffo on the covers in the supermarket checkout lines.

  41. 40
    Seattle Man says:

    One thing to bear in mind is that the hiring process is never as open and transparent as the “musical chairs” cartoon shows.

    That’s an argument both For and Against AA.

  42. 41
    Hestia says:

    I was more irritated by the photo of the topless woman on page 8. They could have chosen something a little less…boob-y. It’s not like I don’t see enough scantily-clad women in my day-to-day life.

    At the same time, they printed fiction and poetry AND more than one article by women in the same issue. That was pretty astonishing.

  43. 42
    RonF says:

    “defining white skin tones as nude or flesh colored,”

    Years ago, back when he was simply a comedian to most people, Bill Cosby was on the Tonight show with Johnny Carson as host. Bill lit a fairly dark cigar. Johnny asked him what kind of cigar it was. Bill answered, “Flesh colored.” It got a big laugh, and the point was made.

  44. 43
    Miss K Broussard says:

    I’m so releaved to know that I am not just stuck in a racial sensitivty mode. I noticed these facial expressions and was immediately offended. I expect the more naive among us to not see what I see and since this is the 21st Century and they still don’t get it – I am convinced they never will.

  45. 44
    brynn says:

    It looks satirical to me. I can’t imagine the those exaggerated malevolent expressions are actually meant to represent malevolence; it seems to me like the cartoon is representing a distorted worldview.

    Does ANYONE here have any passing knowledge of The New Yorker’s history of
    seasonally related covers?

    I strongly agree with Karolena and CaptDMO. I think the illustration is satirical, presenting the distorted world views of white male graduates, who see themselves unfairly competing against women and minorities who benefit from affirmative action policies (most of which have been gutted) when in fact, generally speaking, it’s white men who are on the career fast track. And I think the cover’s timing reflects college grads leaving campus and entering the job market.

  46. 45
    Kali says:

    If the caption for the cartoon is “Seattle School District’s Definition of Racism”, then what the cartoon is saying is probably that the Seattle School District thinks that AA is racist, helping evil minorities and women in taking poor white men’s seats unfairly. So, the cartoon is actually representing the Seattle School District’s distorted worldview, not Sorel’s own world view.

  47. 46
    Herra says:

    Everyone who sees this carton as anti-affirmative action point to the fact that only white males suddenly find themselves without seats and now look scared and vulnerable, therefore the cartoon is telling us that white males are getting a bad deal and we must now all feel sorry for them.
    This interpretation makes a lot of sense and is very logical.
    But let’s try and have a look at this from a pro-affirmative action point of view.

    Lets say a man rapes a girl. After the rape he feels good about himself as clearly he has exerted his male authority over the girl through humiliation and degradation. He walks around with pride on his face.
    After he gets caught and he is standing in front of the judge and jury his face will no longer be filled with pride but rather one that shows fear and vulnerability as he waits to find out what is about to happen to him.

    Now that he is showing fear, does this mean we must all feel sorry for him because he is getting a bad deal? Absolutely not, if anything his fear shows victory for the girl that was raped, victory for all who oppose rape and victory for all girls and women who have been abused by men.

    Now let’s go back to the cartoon. White men have always ruled but instead of ruling with compassion they have chosen to dominate and oppress women and minority groups. White men have always walked around with pride on their faces. Proud of how they have totally subjugated women and minorities to white male authority Now thanks to feminism and affirmative action white men are been challenged and are loosing their special status, they are now fearful because as women and minorities become more powerful white males will soon be subordinate to them. They have never in the passed had to compete with women and other groups.

    Should we now feel sorry for these poor white males just because they are getting a bad deal or better put a taste of their own medicine? Absolutely not, if anything the fear that the white men are showing in the cartoon shows victory for women and minorities and should therefore be a reason for celebration.

    The facial expressions on the faces of the women and black graduates is not so much of malice but rather a sense of knowing that finally after living under white male oppression justice is now been served and that white men will soon be at the mercy of the very groups that they spent the last couple of centuries oppressing and enslaving.

    The white professor shows that not all white men are bad. Some understand the evils of white male supremacy and strongly support feminism and affirmative action. He is smiling because he is delighted by the outcome that his female and black graduates have no fear of white male authority which has always been the case in the past, and which they are proudly demonstrating by taking what is rightfully theirs from the white male graduates.

    The white male graduates who get a chair and are happy could be representatives of white gay men. Even though they are white, gay men have probably had to endure some of the worst type of oppression under white male supremacy. It is therefore only fair that they too should get special preference under affirmative action.

    So whether the cartoonist intended it to be or not to be, this cartoon could be interpreted as pro-affirmative action.

  48. 47
    dean says:

    First of all Herra, Affirmative Action takes out competition, think about it.

    You just take white men out of the picture because those standards seem unattainable to Blacks.