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Businessweek's racist housing cover: What were they thinking?
The venerable business magazine stirred up a hornet's nest with a cover showing caricatured blacks and Latinos rolling in cash
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laims of racism, like charges of anti-Semitism, get thrown around so often that they can lose their moral heft. With that in mind, here's this week's Bloomberg Businessweek cover:

The reaction was just about what you'd expect. "We've been staring at this recent Bloomberg Businessweek cover for most of the morning, and we still can't decide what's most offensive about it," says Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities: "The caricature of the busty, sassy Latina, the barefooted black man waving cash out his window, that woman in the upstairs left-hand corner who looks about as dim-witted as her dog?" Or perhaps it's that "the magazine seems to be suggesting that free-spending minorities who should never have been given mortgages during the last housing bubble are now at it again, pumping their houses for straight cash," a questionable — at best — argument that, oddly enough, isn't part of the article being promoted.

"The narrative of the crash on the right has been the blame-minority-borrowers line, sometimes via dog whistle, often via bullhorn," but that's not accurate, says Ryan Chittum at the Columbia Journalism Review. In fact, "minority borrowers were disproportionately victimized in the bubble," pushed by predatory lenders into high-interest subprime loans even when they qualified for prime ones. "It's hard to imagine how this one made it through the editorial process." The cover is "garbage," says Jamelle Bouie at his blog, and "I guarantee a staff with blacks and Latinos would have caught this before it was too late."

After a day or so of this kind of outrage, Businessweek issued a sort of mea culpa. "Our cover illustration last week got strong reactions, which we regret," editor Josh Tyrangiel said in a statement. "Our intention was not to incite or offend. If we had to do it over again we'd do it differently." Businessweek also released a statement from the illustrator of the cover, Peru-born, Minneapolis-based artist Andres Guzman: "The assignment was an illustration about housing. I simply drew the family like that because those are the kind of families I know. I am Latino and grew up around plenty of mixed families."

Alright, "that's understandable enough as far as it goes," says Slate's Matthew Yglesias, an early critic of the cover. And if you read the story, it's pretty clear that "that there's genuinely no effort here to impugn minority homebuyers." But that's what the cover screams, and it should have been obvious to Businessweek's American staff. Not everyone is so forgiving of the but-the-artist-is-Latino argument. "It could have been an African American person," NAACP economics director Dedrick Muhammad tells New York. The cover "still puts forth a historically racist depiction that minorities are out grabbing money and benefiting.... It's offensive on a whole bunch of levels."

Racist or not, the cover doesn't even make sense, says Jacob Gaffney at HousingWire.

Flipping is not a form of fraud — except on the lending side, perhaps — but not representative of a typical transaction. No-look bids are not exclusive to Hispanic and African-American investors. No one is making a 300 percent return. And even if assuming all the claims are true, it is not with enough velocity to credit it to creating the housing rebound. [HousingWire]

Well, at least the cover got our attention, says Dylan Stableford at Yahoo News. And such provocation is largely why Tyrangiel was named AdAge's 2012 Editor of the Year: "His willingness — along with creative director Richard Turley — to push the envelope." So maybe we can just chalk this up to a misfire, a pushing of the envelope a little too far, says Nick Robins-Early at New York.

All things considered, it does appear that the regrettable cover was not designed out of malice, but simply thanks to a colossal error of judgment on the part of the editors and art department. As the furor over the cover turns from a boil to a simmer, the whole episode, in hindsight, is best summed up by a line from the cover's subheadline: "What could go possibly wrong?" [New York]

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