Did Racist Images in Dr. Seuss Books Contribute to War Crimes?

Photograph Source: Al Ravenna, World Telegram staff photographer – Public Domain

A friend delights in sending me news stories that demonstrate what he says are the excesses of liberalism. One recent article that arrived in my inbox concerned Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision to halt publication of six childrens’ books it now believes contain racist imagery.

“I didn’t realize Dr. Seuss made us all racists,” he quipped.

As usual, a flippant retort to a flippant remark moves the conversation nowhere. One has to dig a bit deeper.

The six newly delisted books (And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, The Cat’s Quizzer, and The Cat’s Quizzer) were all created between 1935 and 1976, a time when racist imagery in cartoons was as common as giant noses. And while these six books have been (in today’s vernacular) “cancelled,” no one is suggesting that they are in the same league as the infamous Censored Eleven—a group of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons that were considered so offensive toward African Americans that they were pulled from syndication way back in 1968.

Nor is anyone—outside of a Klan meeting—suggesting that the blatantly offensive characterizations found in the Censored Eleven have a place on Saturday morning television.

But when it comes to more subtle racist imagery—such as the Siamese cats in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp or the black-face crows in Dumbo—well, here many conservatives draw the line. Why, this is not racism, they insist. Those cartoon characters aren’t even people; they’re cats and crows! On the contrary, this is “woke censorship” run amok by out-of-touch “Hollywood elites,” themes they’ve no doubt picked up from right-wing politicians and FOX News pundits who are busily fanning the flames of the Culture War.

I wanted to take a look for myself at the image that had made the suits at Dr. Suess Inc. ban one book in particular after nearly 85 years in print. I opened And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street—the only book on the list that I was even vaguely familiar with—and found the controversial image in question, a cartoon of a Chinese man. It is a fairly stereotypical image from the 1930s. The man is bright yellow, has slits for eyes, a long pigtail, a lampshade looking hat. He holds chopsticks and a bowl of rice. He is called a “Chinaman.” And, for some unknown reason, he wears traditional Japanese-style shoes.

According to Dr. Seuss Enterprises that image, and some of the images in the other five books, “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

I am not Asian, so my feelings about the images are not very relevant. But I have to assume that a number of smart Asian people (a panel of experts, the company called them) were offended and hurt by the portrayal of Asians in the kid’s book.

That is good enough for me.

But while I may not be Asian, I am somewhat of an amateur historian, therefore I am painfully aware of the consequences of such “hurtful and wrong” images. For example, we know that long before the Holocaust, Germans were fed a steady diet of images of Jews as subhuman vermin. This included, most famously, the dehumanizing depictions of Jews in children’s books like Trust No Fox.

It was this policy of dehumanizing an entire race that made it so much easier for Germans and their allies to murder 6 million Jews.

Similarly, what do we imagine all those World War II-era propaganda cartoons were created for if not to dehumanize Asians so that Americans would feel less guilty about annihilating Japanese cities with fire bombs and atomic weapons? Who can forget that rascally rabbit Bugs Bunny in a cartoon titled Nip the Nips: “Here you are, slant eyes,” he says to one Japanese man.

Anyone who has watched the Vietnam War-era documentary Winter Soldier will recall the testimony of former American soldiers who served in Vietnam. The soldiers described how they were trained to see the Vietnamese–both North and South Vietnamese, both combatans and civilians—not as human but as “subhuman gooks,” and how this dehumanization strategy allowed American troops—time and time again— to massacre entire villages of women and children like they were exterminating rats or some other kind of vermin.

Like the German people, these young Americans grew up seeing images in children’s books and in cartoons that depicted Asians as subhuman.

So, no, Dr. Seuss didn’t make us all racist.

He had a lot of help.