Popular dictionaries define racism as a belief that people’s characteristics, their qualities and faults, are determined by race (or ethnicity). It was behind Hitler’s murder of millions of Jews and countless lynchings and shootings of blacks in the American South. Needless to say, racism works profound injustice and is behind divisions that exist in America and many other societies. Anyone with an ounce of sense and a modicum of human experiences knows that qualities and faults are individual and not determined by a person’s ancestral group.
There has been enormous progress during my lifetime in improving racial justice and race relations. Nonetheless, racism continues to rear its ugly head. A notorious recent example was the shooting of nine black people in a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015 by the demented white supremacist Dylann Roof. He is being tried for murder and very likely faces the death penalty. Periodic events such as this cause people to rightly remain on edge, and society needs to continue to be vigilant regarding any embedded racism.
But it’s possible that vigilance can be carried too far. Recently First Lady Melania Trump donated the iconic Dr. Seuss children’s books to school libraries as part of an effort to encourage reading by youngsters. The librarian in a Cambridge, Massachusetts elementary school rejected the gift saying the books were “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.” Then a black woman, a prominent Democrat and former Georgia legislator, LeDawn Jones, appeared on the Fox Network’s Tucker Carlson show to double down, saying that old Dr. Seuss was a well-known racist and a purveyor of racially charged images.
Maybe you’re as surprised as I am that The Cat in the Hat not to mention Thing One and Thing Two are racist. I can understand the evil Grinch—he was simply bad to the bone—and I’m not just saying that because he’s green.
It seems that Dr. Seuss, in his early years as a cartoonist, supported the World War II effort by creating some propaganda cartoons on behalf of the government lampooning Hitler and the Japanese war leader Tojo in, of course, an unflattering way. And he also illustrated ads for a popular insecticide product, Flit. Some of the illustrations contained figures that could be fairly construed as unacceptable stereotypes of Arabs and black Africans. It’s noteworthy that these kinds of illustrations were in the context of the times and—while clearly insensitive especially by today’s standards—were in the mainstream then, particularly so with our government’s war propaganda effort. One could fault FDR as much or more so than Dr. Seuss for the propaganda illustrations, and I don’t hear mainstream Democrats calling for the boycott of Franklin Roosevelt. Dr. Seuss also was an outspoken voice for racial justice for African-Americans and published many illustrations supporting his point of view, which was quite unpopular at the time.
Even if you believe the venerable Seuss should be condemned for his racial insensitivity in spite of his public stand for racial justice, it’s hard to justify bashing Sam-I-Am or The Cat in the Hat. After all, the sins of the father should not be visited upon the sons, as Shakespeare taught us in The Merchant of Venice. It seems to me there are plenty of real racial villains—David Duke, George Wallace, Dylann Roof…I’d name more but we’d run out of room. Spotlighting Dr. Seuss and his cast of iconic characters as racist villains seems to cheapen the conversation about racism in America and undermine the credibility of those who are speaking out about it. Maybe, as Dr. Seuss taught us, we ought to think a little more carefully before we condemn.
“Think left and think right and think low and think high.
Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”