Seeing Racism Where It Isn't
InsideHigherEd.com addresses a controversy over cartoons at the University of Virginia student newspaper deemed racist. Before I explain why the critics are wrong, I should note that the story also links to previous cartoons by the same artist last year that offended Christians ("one depicts Jesus Christ crucified on a Cartesian x/y axis, the other shows a nativity scene in which Mary responds to Joseph’s concerns over a 'bumpy rash' by saying 'I swear, it was immaculately transmitted!'”), and led Bill O'Reilly to proclaim, “People should write letters to John Casteen until this publication is thrown off campus.” When Bill O'Reilly and black activists on campus agree on censorship, that's a disturbing sign.
The critics of the cartoon, and the newspaper, are simply wrong. In its pandering apology, the newspaper proclaims that the cartoon “clearly violates” its rules because “it criticizes people for circumstances they cannot change.” But nothing in the cartoon says that Ethiopians are bad people or blames them for their poverty. It’s simply a humorous way to point out that they don’t have food (hence, a food fight has no food involved). But even if it “criticizes people” (why shouldn't a cartoon do that?), the cartoon certainly doesn’t violate the key rule, “does the author truthfully depict a verifiable historical or contemporary situation?” Ethiopia’s famines in 1973, 1984, and 1998-2000 were highly publicized, and it remains a deeply impoverished country. So what’s more racist? A cartoon using humor to publicize a terrible human tragedy, or ignoring the problems faced by people in Africa, as most newspapers do? As for the Thomas Jefferson cartoon, that’s not a racist cartoon, it’s an anti-racist cartoon, and one that effectively (but cleverly) exposes the fact that under slavery, even a presumably consensual relationship with Sally Hemings was part of a system of domination. Maybe the critics of the Cav Daily have a valid point about racism at the newspaper in general; I can’t judge that without reading the newspaper. But if these cartoons are the clearest evidence of racism they can find, then they need to start looking for real racism somewhere else. Cartoonists use humor to address terrible situations, including those affecting black people. It’s not racist to do this; instead, it’s racist to banish every controversial cartoon involving a black person out of a misguided sense of racial sensitivity.
UPDATE: FIRE reports that the cartoonist has been suspended and may be fired. Also, the InsideHigherEd.com article has several comments accusing me of being oblivious to what is deemed to be the obvious racism in one cartoon, namely "it depicts africans as violent savages in loincloths. This has the same amount of political insightfulness as a burning cross."
I disagree. These figures are not representatives of all blacks or all Africans or even all Ethiopians. They're meant to represent starving people, and it's not so odd to have them almost naked. Clearly, the cartoonist was taking a shortcut by making all of them identical and bald and without clothes, because that's easier to draw. Nor does it depict Africans as "violent savages"; "food fight" after all is a primarily Western term, I believe. If you think that this confirms some negative stereotype, by all means, write a letter to the paper and educate folks. But to protest against a newspaper (and equate it to cross burning) because a guy is too lazy to draw clothing strikes me as bizarre.
UPDATE: The cartoonist has been fired by the Cav Daily. He told the Washington Post, "I was not trying to trivialize famine. When you have a food fight, you fight with food. This cartoon brings you to the realization that there's a famine . . . and in general, people give very little thought to starving people in other countries. But I will admit that I really lacked the foresight in anticipating the reaction. I should have thought that they were going to think I was portraying Africans as savage and misshapen."