National Review cover illo of Sonia Sotomayor


There's talk that this illustration of Sonia Sotomayor depicted as an Asian on the cover of The National Review is racist, which I kind of think it is. But I also have to admit the craftsmanship of the illustration is top-notch. It reminds me of Artzybasheff or Covarrubias (see here and here).


  1. Is calling people descended from a handful of East Asian peoples “Asian” racist?

  2. Note: that’s an honest question, without any intention of irony or rhetoric.

  3. The illustration, independent of the context, might arguably be not racist – from a Buddhist perspective, the Buddha nature is in all of us. Out of context, that’s a pretty nifty notion: That Sotomayor seeks to see beyond worldly differences to the essential nature of all human beings.

    I hate to employ an /ad hominem/ or “consider the source” argument, but, context: It’s the National Review, and that those who politically benefit from any satirisation of Sotomayor in the context of an exegesised, spun statement (the “Wise Latina” statement, taken out of context and mis-diagrammed/mis-syntacticised{a polite way of saying misunderstood and outright lied about} by rightwing punditry) are those who themselves distorted Sotomayor’s statement – so the benefit of the doubt strongly leans towards “Yes, it’s racist”. I highly doubt that anyone at the National Review considers Buddhism as something noble or that depicting someone as Buddhist is a complement.

    And I don’t buy the inevitable “But they weren’t aware that it would be interpreted as racist” argument, after what happened with the New Yorker.

  4. Kieran: Whether you intend it to be racist or not, someone might interpret it to be racist due to context or culture that you may, or may not, share with that person. You should be aware that it might be /seen/ to be racist and so proceed forward by treating the person in question as human and with dignity – in short, ask them what they prefer to be described as, which may jut be “human”.

  5. It’s an obvious ploy to stir shit so they can call their accusers “the real racists”. This seems to be the republican strategy right now, more than being about this nomination, they seem to want to rebrand themselves as the “not racists”, the real victims of America’s race problem.

  6. Kieran: I think that might depend on the person.

    I really wish everyone in the media would take a chill pill or at the least look at Sotomayor’s comments in, I don’t know, maybe the FULL CONTEXT of what she said. But it is examples like this latest “controversy” that have made me decide that 2009 is the Official Year of the Non-Issue.

  7. Kieran @1 & 2, most of the people I know who are of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and/or Indian ancestry vastly prefer “Asian” to the older term I was brought up using, “Oriental”.

    Bardfinn @3, they not only depicted her as Asian, but chose to connote Asianness by giving her strongly slanted eyes and big buck teeth!

  8. Playing on racial stereotypes like exaggerated slanting eyes and huge front teeth play on the propaganda circa WWII to make Japanese look ugly and foolish. “Ah me so sowwy, me too clumsy.”

    Personally I don’t get upset anymore when something like this comes up. I love it every time some prominent conservative Republican or mouthpiece takes a shot at a group that doesn’t fit their very narrow demographic.

    In fact I encourage them to keep it up, until their party really is nothing but conservative straight white male members of the Christian right.

  9. And to add:

    The racism is the big teeth/exaggerated slanted eyes in the illustration. Depicting Sotomayor as a Buddha is just stupid.

    And what do you get when you combine racism with stupidity?

    The National Review.

  10. #4 Bardfin wrote: “You should be aware that it might be /seen/ to be racist and so proceed forward by treating the person in question as human and with dignity – in short, ask them what they prefer to be described as, which may jut be “human”.”

    I agree with treating others as human and with dignity. However, the ‘asking them, etc.’ part I’m not so sure about. Logistically possible? Maybe, barely.

    Seems to me we’d all benefit not only from making a good faith effort to treat each other as human and with dignity, but also acting that way: not whining or playing the victim so easily. We’ve become like too many soccer players: we play up slights, real or fictional, in the hope that a referee will give us an advantage thereby. I say that such behaviour reduces our dignity at the very least.

    So many times people take offense, and nurture offense. That is neither admirable nor productive of anything except an artificial ‘penalty shot’. Strong and healthy people are not so easily bruised. I would like to see myself and others emulate the strong who give and earn respect rather than who rely on irate tears and wailing.

  11. Ah yes, the National Review, always putting the class in class warfare.

    Save the really big guffaws for “Jonah Goldberg and his critics”.

  12. That hand gesture means “fear not.” I’m sure the NR staff doesn’t know that.

    Oh, and I – Grimc 10.

  13. Also: Corner President is watching you masturbate.

    Or something. The function of a magazine cover is to get you to buy the thing. So maybe race-based metaphorical incoherence works for that.

    This week TNR also printed “The Prism of Obama” and “No President is a Pyramid.”

    So they’re clearly going for the Non-pyramidal Prismatic Corner President Is Watching You Masturbate demographic.

  14. Without any context this would indeed be over the top… but after that incredibly stupid and arrogant ‘wise Latina’ comment from Sotomayor this is absolutely fair game.

  15. Images of Sakyamuni Buddha often have eyes that look very similar to those depicted on the cover. And I don’t think she is meant to be depicted as simply “an Asian” but as a Buddha, for the reason that Buddha images are very often associated with wisdom. Given the source, I suspect it was meant entirely as satire, of course, but It doesn’t strike me as racist.

    I could actually imagine this same image being used in Tricycle or Shambhala Sun if they decided to publish an article about Sotomayor comparing her beliefs to those of buddhists. (I don’t actually know much about her beliefs, so I don’t know if such an article would make sense, but y’know) If such a thing had happened, I wonder if the image would still be considered racist.

    For what it’s worth, I’m a Buddhist and a liberal (mostly). I think the headline strikes me as more racist than the picture, because it seems to imply that she might be the only wise latino.

  16. I don’t think the depiction of the future SCJ is so bad. She’s sitting as the Buddha, for God’s sake, that’s hardly a slur. Don’t we want the court to be enlightened, peaceful, etc? The exact curvature of the eye may be a little off, but as political cartoons go, this one is overall, quite complimentary.

  17. Gosh, Oldtaku, would you explain what you could possibly mean by that? Since her statement doesn’t sound nearly as bad in context as it does on Faux Noise, I think ‘context’ is not your friend here, so you couldn’t be saying what it sounds like you’re saying, or you’d just be a total toad-sucking jackhole.

    Please explain what you did mean, because I for one* am mystified.
    *I had to restrain myself, Strangelove-like, from typing “…welcome our new Wise Latina overlords” after that. NnnnnNNGG!

  18. Is it racist? IMHO – yes, very.

    It is also truth in advertising, accurately depicting the sort of hamfisted caricature that is NR’s bread and butter

  19. Depicting her on the cover (as a ‘Wise Latina’) is racist? But her calling herself a Wise Latina isn’t?

    I think this whole race thing is being blown out of proportion. We just elected a black* man president. Do people really still think there’s a barrier that prevents an Hispanic from being on the Supreme Court? I see this as a non-issue. As long as someone more qualified than her wasn’t passed over to get to her, then confirm her, and let’s be done with this.

    *he’s also half-white, which the press never bothers to point out (racism by the press)

  20. @oldtaku#16

    I disagree. Without context (I have none, know nothing about her), it’s utterly innocuous.

    Looks like her, and the quote that clearly means something I’m unaware of, superficially makes it clear she’s not asian, and seems to equate Buddhism with wisdom, which is possibly strange since apparently she’s not Buddhist, but it’s hardly insulting.

  21. I think by the standards being applied in this thread, a lot of stuff by Miguel Covarrubias would be classified as “racist.” It’s like the old joke about how, in Freud, everything longer than it is thin must be a phallic symbol except cigars. Which probably symbolize feces.

    How can you graphically satirize somebody who refers to themselves as “wise” without being racist? (Maybe the quote was taken out of context in Sotomayor’s case, but I’m asking about caricature generally.) If they’re thin, you could draw them as Gandhi, but would that be racist too? Would Moses get the point across? Einstein seems more smart than wise. Besides, that’s two Jews in a row.

  22. My personal view is that these people should be ignored. They seem to be obviously trying to get a rise out of people on the other side of this issue. So let’s show them that we’re better than them by rising above this nonsense and just ignoring these obnoxious children.

  23. What a relief that this is the only wedge issue they could find. “She called herself wise! Can you believe it! Of all the self-important nonsense!” Looks like she is going to sail through. Good thing. We need more wisdom!

  24. Besides the fact that it’s racist, how depressing is it that we have to go half way around the world and back two-and-a-half millennia to find a symbol for wisdom?

    Also, um, the Buddha was born in current day Nepal, which was culturally North Indian and racially Aryan. He’s reported to have had light skin and blue eyes, as is still common in northern India.

  25. Antinous, the Buddha was not born in current-day Nepal. He was born long, long ago in what is NOW Nepal.

    And Aryans (real ones) are not blond and blue-eyed, despite what [name censored by Godwin-o-matic] claimed. They are short, dark-haired people. The eyes I don’t know about. Don’t Berbers have blue eyes too?

    Teller, the New Yorker cover was racist too. Whether they did it on purpose or not. Since the National Review was founded by racists and has been consistently racist throughout its history, we don’t give them the benefit of the doubt. I suppose they could have been as clueless as the New Yorker was, but personally I’m just not inclined to cut those toad-fuckers any godsdamned slack.

    1. Fine. The Buddha was ethnically whatever Aishwarya Rai is. You work out the details.

  26. In response to anyone who might be inclined to, like the NR, misinterpret Judge Sotomayor’s comment about wise Latinas, I’d love to share the original context:

    She also claims to attempt “complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives,”, “I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences, but I accept my limitations,” and says:
    “I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.”

    Anyone who reads the paragraphs immediately preceding and following her statement would know that her speech was addressing the complexity of race and was not insulting to anyone. This is manufactured controversy. The researchers at SCOTUSblog actually find that she has a record of rejecting discrimination claims more often than not.

    Knowing all this, I do think that all this objection to Judge Sotomayor’s comment is racist, though at best willful ignorance is at play.

  27. @machineintheghost

    How can you graphically satirize somebody who refers to themselves as “wise” without being racist?

    Owl in a mortarboard.

  28. GRIMC funny! Very Funny. 2 x’s! But yeah, trying to figure out what the hell the NR meant with this cover would mean the joke is on us.

    And the Jonah Goldberg and his critics was hilarious in a way that I don’t think they meant it to be.

  29. Thanks for your thoughts, X. Charlie Rose didn’t think Buckley was a racist, though maybe you knew him better.
    This illustration is just an okay, fairly predictable, depiction of wisdom. Think holy man crosslegged on a mountain. Where it appears is shaping the “it’s racist” opinion. That’s my point. btw, I wasn’t specifically referring to the Muslim Obama NYer cover. Whatta hoo-hah that was. That cover was not racist – that cover was topical and FONNY. btw2, who is “we”?

  30. Have you seen Sotomayor? She happens to have eyes and teeth that caricature into the Buddha-like figure on the cover. All political figures get the cartoonist treatment when they’re big on the national scene. Racist would be pulling out all the Hispanic stereotypes as in the old Frito Bandito. The emphasis in this cartoon cover is on the “wise” part of her self description, not on the Latina.

  31. The National Review is such a joke, they’re real-life trolls now who are just flailing for attention.

  32. Is it racist to satire a minority? Or is it a form of equality?

    The farther you step into the public sphere, the more sacred cows will burn..

    Politicians ought to stop hiding behind sacred cows.. Soon there won’t be anything sacred left. Stand up for the merits of your beliefs and be judged by your actions. Remember, justice is supposed to be blind.

  33. Wait, depicting a Latino as an Asian stereotype is offensive? Have we gone into some kind of meta-political correctness here?

  34. This is in very poor taste, yes, but then again so is a lot of press. But considering the numbers, there are fewer readers of the NR than watchers of FOX news, where the real evil is going on — accusing someone born and raised in America of “not understanding” America, then leaping to “of course she’s a racist” with that shifty-eyed look that means ‘o crap, our dirty tricks are going to be exposed and we’re not going to be on top anymore!’

    Of course they’re jumping the gun, but Obama has struck so much fear into their pale, cold hearts, simply because of the colour of his skin.

  35. @41

    Is it racist to satire a minority? Or is it a form of equality?

    True racial equality will be achieved when people can call minorities “n*gger”, “ch*nk”, “wetb*ck”, et al. freely, publicly and to their faces. You know, as long as they’re just kidding. Brilliant.

  36. Maybe they should have got R. Crumb to do the illustration. His blatant racism and sexism is given a free pass by the left.

  37. Teller 38: I offer this quote as evidence:

    “The central question that emerges…is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”
    —William F. Buckley, National Review, August 24, 1957

    The man who wrote that was ipso facto a racist. He may have been a hypocrite even then, and/or he may have had a change of heart in later years, but a) he was a racist then, and b) he was a founder of the printed excrescence under discussion, therefore the magazine was founded in part by a racist (and that quote could not have been published had there not been other racists running things as well).

    TNR has a long history of racism. If they want to shed the reputation they’ve justly acquired, they need to be a little more careful about covers like this recent one.

  38. Maybe they should have got R. Crumb to do the illustration. His blatant racism and sexism is given a free pass by the left.

    So, Crumb’s been accused of racism and sexism, but since he’s “given a free pass by the left” the accusations must come from the staunch defenders of minorities and gender equality…on the right?


  39. “TNR has a long history of racism” (?)

    Uh, one quote by Buckley from the ’50’s doesn’t prove your point.

    Also, yer really reachin’ with that kind of twisted logic.

    The cover rocks!

  40. Instead of fretting about it lets embrace it, take ownership of it, take what was obviously meant as a slight and redirect its energy back against them! And what lovelier an image could they have made the mistake of using! I would hope Sonia Sotomayor would have this framed and hanged on her office wall.

  41. Xopher: Xlnt quote. Indefensible to our ears.
    Here’s my take on racism, as it pertains to our discussion. If you view a race of people as intrinsically inferior, simply based on race alone, that’s racism. If you view a group of people as less advanced, and we can argue by what standards, that’s not racism. That’s analysis. Buckley’s 1957 quote is correct. In general, blacks in the South were not as advanced as whites. Forced segregation in housing, education, the job market and every manner of opportunity made sure of that. Using the word “advanced” is not racist or the NAACP wouldn’t have made it its middle name. What’s cold-hearted about Buckley’s quote is the suggestion that because a group is less advanced, it shouldn’t “for the time being” share in the power that would speed its advancement. That was a dodge.

  42. No, Teller, that was racism. He didn’t mean ‘advanced’ the same way the NAACP uses it. He meant ‘advanced’ in the sense of ‘superior’.

  43. Seems to me, intent can’t be divorced from racism, so that something may be offensive, without being racist.

  44. I agree that something can be offensive without being racist, but not that intent can’t be divorced from racism. You can easily be racist without intending to be. You can even make a racist statement without having racism in your heart, if you’re not careful.

    But that’s a side issue. No one seriously looking at the facts of the matter would contend that TNR is free of racism. Whether they intended a racial slur in this case is uncertain (just as it’s uncertain the sun will rise tomorrow), but it’s also irrelevant. It’s certainly offensive, they certainly intended it to be offensive, and whether the offensiveness takes the form of racism is in the eye of the beholder.

    In my eye, it’s racist. Let’s see how it plays out generally. But the readers of TNR aren’t exactly a racially-sensitive bunch, so it probably won’t hurt them in terms of readership.

  45. This image was definitely published, and probably created, in order to mock Sotomayor personally, as well as Latinas and Asians and Buddhists in general. This is self-evident. This is not a pro-Sotomayor campaign poster. If it didn’t make a negative statement about her, it wouldn’t be doing its job. The N.R., by selecting this imagery, is illustrating that it considers all these characteristics negative.

    (Not that I think Sotomayor should be “confirmed,” or anything, or that anyone else should be, or that the Supreme Court and the rest of America’s hell-on-earth prison-system gulag should even exist.)

  46. I more than “kind of” think it’s *not* racist, Mark (maybe, given the size of your readership, you could find the time to be slightly more specific as to why you think it “kind of” is).

    The sort of Buddhist iconography the illustration references is a good, widely-understood visual shorthand for “wisdom” and “enlightenment.” Illustrators often rely upon widely-understood visual metaphor; it’s an efficient way of getting across a point. If Hillary, Bill, Barack, or McCain had implied that they were particularly “wise” on account of their race and/or cultural experience (or whatever) they’d be due for the same sort of razzing, and the same iconography would have been among the sharpest tools at hand.

    Sotomayor’s race (and the Buddha’s) is incidental to the gibe. In fact, the only thing “racist” within 100 yards of this image is Sotomayor’s original quote. I find it hard to fathom that intelligent and honest adults think otherwise.

    (I too admire the craftmanship of the piece, which indeed warrants a reference to Artzybasheff and Covarrubias, two of my all-time favorites. A glance at Roman Genn’s website suggests that the artist really hit his stride with this one.)

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