Is a billionaire white woman who was able to buy her way into a US Cabinet position morally equivalent to a six-year-old black girl who helped desegregate a New Orleans public school? The answer to that question is obviously, profoundly, “no.” Unless you are “rabid right-winger” cartoonist Glenn McCoy, in which case …
Yes, that is a cartoon appropriating Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” a 1963 painting that depicts the heroic Ruby Bridges as she heads to an all-white elementary school, where she was the first black student. Bridges was part of a 1960 school desegregation effort in New Orleans, which faced so much opposition that she had to be accompanied by US marshals. “Driving up I could see the crowd, but living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras,” she told PBS Newshour many decades later. “There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.” Rockwell’s painting of Bridges was published in Look magazine in 1964 — his first for the publication — and became an iconic civil rights image.
Now you might be wondering what on earth DeVos might have faced in the seven days since Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a vote to break a Senate tie on her confirmation as Secretary of Education. What great adversity?
Oh. Oh, how awful. Two whole protesters blocked DeVos — who once famously said she wants to use US schools to “advance God’s kingdom” — from climbing a staircase to enter a Washington, DC, school. And rather than engage with them, she hurried away. It really is not easy being Betsy DeVos, is it? No one even told her where they put the pencils!
Historian Kevin M. Kruse had probably the best response to the cartoon today, tweeting in detail why the comparison between Bridges and DeVos is “so wrong-headed” (click through and read the full thread):
Meanwhile, writer Elon Green pointed out that the comparison stems from more than just McCoy’s imagination going berserk — though we are talking about the same man who drew Obama beating babies outside an abortion clinic (and yet has won awards for his work). Invoking civil rights in the name of DeVos has become a conservative rallying cry over the past few days:
And historian Angus Johnston noted the visual background tweaks that McCoy made to the Rockwell image, including replacing spray-painted “KKK” text with “NEA”:
It’s worth mentioning, too, that our previous president, Barack Obama, fully appreciated the significance of “The Problem We All Live With,” borrowing it from the Norman Rockwell Museum and hanging it in the White House for several months in 2011, at Bridges’s urging. The civil rights activist visited it there and met with Obama, who told her, “I think it’s fair to say that, if it hadn’t been for you guys, I might not be here and we wouldn’t be looking at this together.”