Racist Caricature in Student Journalism

On Oct. 23, SUNY Plattsburgh’s student-run newspaper, The Cardinal Points, reached the national spotlight following its publication of a racially charged cartoon. The cartoon, which accompanied an article that touted the University’s strong minority presence, featured an African-American graduate in a decrepit neighborhood. The graduate appears undisturbed by the crooked stop signs, graffiti-scarred houses and broken-down cars surrounding him. With his bulging eyes and exaggerated mouth, he emerges as the modern caricature of African-Americans in a Jim Crow South.

SUNY Plattsburgh, one of 64 state universities in New York, has experienced a number of racial flashpoints. Last year, the paper published an article describing how the racist milieu of Plattsburgh carries over into campus life. Plattsburgh is home to New York’s sole KKK chapter, and some students seem to embrace the Klan’s rhetoric. The school was also rocked by the discovery last year that “Black kids suck” was written on a bathroom stall. The illustrator of the cartoon under fire previously publicized his racist attitude on social media. He recently deleted an Instagram post captioned: “[His] favorite person in Plattsburgh” followed by the n-word as a hash-tag.

The response of both staff of The Cardinal Points and SUNY Plattsburgh’s administration has been tempered. Jonathan Slater, chair of Plattsburgh’s Department of Journalism and Public Relations, attributes the publication of the offensive cartoon to a “procedural failure on the part of the students.” The editorial team, issuing an apology on Oct. 30, echoed Slater’s sentiment. It emphasized, “As SUNY Plattsburgh students…we are constantly trying to represent the campus community in the best possible way, and in this case, we did not do so.”

As an independently owned and operated paper, The Cardinal Points undergoes content review each Monday before distribution. During these sessions, the editorial team works with a staff advisor to debrief on the previous issue. Neither the advisor, nor the editorial staff, responded to emails by The Voice for an interview to discuss this process.

John Ellington, President of SUNY Plattsburgh, introduced several initiatives on Oct. 29 to address the campus-wide fervor. Writing to the campus community that “the front page illustration in Friday’s edition of Cardinal Points does not reflect a range of values SUNY Plattsburgh holds dear,” Ellington maintained that the University will hire a diversity officer, host a Diversity Week and create a student-led Multicultural Alliance in the coming years. For the interim, the SUNY Plattsburgh Black Student Union will hold town hall meetings for students to voice their concerns.

If the cartoon is anathema to the University’s social scene, the campus community should be willing to engage in an open dialogue on the incident. Portraying the cartoon as an unfortunate publishing error or an isolated instance of stereotyping on campus, the school sweeps the issue of racism under the rug. The Cardinal Points editorial team, for its part, perpetuates barriers among races in refusing to communicate with news outlets. Mutual understanding cannot be achieved when parties remain on the defensive. Defense acts a mechanism for self-protection and, as result, hinders an empowered camp from striving toward progress.

The national backlash at SUNY Plattsburgh should not be analyzed in a vacuum; it is, in fact, representative of a society far from effectively navigating the waters of a plural society. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, wrote that African-Americans suffer from “the lingering effects of an overtly discriminatory past, the legacy of centuries of law-sanctioned inequality.” The inability of SUNY Plattsburgh to establish a meaningful, campus-wide conversation reveals the lingering impact of the racial divide the classroom.

Julie A. Helling, an associate professor of law, diversity and justice at Fairhaven College, argues that the threat of being racially categorized undermines academic performance. Poor academic performance, in turn, seems to validate racial stereotypes. She notes, “students of color have to spend much of their energy on racism in one form or another, and white students have that same energy to spend on education.” While Helling recognizes the vulnerability whites feel when typecast as racists in a classroom setting, she considers “what a lifetime as a student of color hearing these comments could do to the student’s focus.”

In his 1848 report to the Massachusetts State Board of Education, education reformer Horace Mann articulated that “education…beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men.” Mann’s vision, however, cannot reach fruition if the classroom remains a gauge for existing inequalities. To create opportunities for more equitable college experiences, we must first accept the vulnerabilities that our history entails.