The cartoon above ran in today’s Boston Herald. Like the vast majority of editorial cartoons, it’s pretty dumb. Unlike the vast majority, it has been widely denounced and (sort of) apologized for, on account of its boneheaded choice of toothpaste flavors.
Obviously, using watermelon as the punch line was a terrible idea. The question is whether something worse than an inadvertent slip-up is at work here. Ta-Nehisi Coates says yes, there was:
I don’t think the joke hinges upon black people liking watermelon. I think the joke is about the Secret Service’s security failures. Obama himself is not even the subject of the joke — his perspective is that of, or close to, the reader’s. The point of the joke is that White House security is so lax that a random person could wander into the president’s living quarters undetected and take a bath, and regard this as so casual he could chat about a commonplace topic as toothpaste.
Black people liking watermelon is certainly not the main comic premise of the cartoon and was probably not intended as a secondary premise, either. The joke works just as well with some other flavor. Indeed, a version of the cartoon changed the flavor to raspberry, and the joke worked equally well, or not well, depending on your taste in cartooning.
The cartoonist, Jerry Holbert, explained that he came up with watermelon because he was thinking of his kids’ Colgate watermelon-flavor toothpaste. Possibly he made a subconscious connection between a black president and watermelon. But it seems very doubtful this was his intent.