The cover of a college newspaper features a blackface cartoon. The focal point of the illustration is a young black man—depicted with bulging eyes and an exaggerated white mouth. He proudly walks through a decrepit neighborhood, clenching a diploma and donning a red graduation cap and gown. On a street lined with dilapidated houses, a broken-down car (on cinderblocks), and a crooked stop sign, our character continues forth, apparently unfazed by the disarray that surrounds him.
The year is 2015. And this cartoon is racist.
Published in Cardinal Points—an independently owned and operated student-publication—the blackface cartoon made waves in Plattsburgh, New York, particularly on SUNY Plattsburgh’s campus. Shocker.
The publication is funded through advertising and subscriptions (the Plattsburgh Student’s Association is among the subscribers). Students join the newspaper staff as a practicum.
Ironically, the article that accompanied the cartoon discusses diversity—with the headline “Minority Admission Rates Examined”—and the inner caption reads “EQUAL: PSUC diversity valued.” The story speaks to SUNY Plattsburgh’s diversity efforts and touts the university as being “extremely diverse” due to its especially large international enrollment of approximately 16 percent.
Despite a “strong” international presence on campus, the North Country is no stranger to bigotry. Plattsburgh, New York, is home of the only KKK chapter in New York State. And it follows that this isn’t the first time that Plattsburgh State University has dealt with racism. Indeed, Cardinal Points itself published an article this year that describes a pervasive racist milieu in the town—which includes the use of racial slurs. The n-word seems to be a favorite. The cartoon’s illustrator, Jonny Zajac, in an Instagram post said “My favorite person in Plattsburgh #niggers.” His Instagram account has since been deactivated.
Yes, there is a problem with racism at SUNY Plattsburgh.
On Monday morning, John Ettling, president of SUNY Plattsburgh University, said that he was offended by the illustration in a statement issued to the campus community. “The front-page illustration in Friday's edition of the Cardinal Points student newspaper does not reflect a range of values SUNY Plattsburgh holds dear. Rather, as the editors of Cardinal Points indicated in their own written apology, the cartoon features offensive and stereotypical elements that misrepresent African-American students. It is also personally offensive to me.”
The pink elephant in the room: How was a blackface cartoon allowed to be on the cover of Cardinal Points in the first place?
“This was a procedural failure on the part of the students,” said Jonathan Slater, the Department of Journalism and Public Relations chair. Slater was commenting on behalf of Shawn Murphy, the Cardinal Points staff adviser, who was unavailable for comment.
“Ostensibly, it [Cardinal Points] is autonomous of the college,” he said. Yet the Cardinal Points is a practicum, with its student leadership being chosen by Murphy, the staff adviser. Slater continued, “Every week there is a procedural review of the paper’s content.”
This procedural review occurs on Mondays, after each publication is distributed Friday of the preceding week. This review is a debrief: What worked and what didn’t work? And pre-emptively, there is a review process of all of the paper’s content—including images. But, as Slater does not oversee the practicum, he was unable to speak to the review process before each edition goes to print. Slater finished, “We expect them [students] to use this experience as a tool for their future careers.”
Through this process, the Cardinal Points editorial staff issued an apology for the poor decision. “It has come to our attention that the graphic in question not only has a disconnect to the article it was created to work with, but it also unintentionally features offensive and stereotypical elements that misrepresent AfricanAmerican students. To be frank, we deeply regret the use of this graphic and any offense or harm it may have caused our friends and peers. As SUNY Plattsburgh students and editors of the newspaper, we are constantly trying to represent the campus community in the best possible way, and in this case, we did not do so.” Perhaps this apology is on behalf of the staff adviser, Shawn Murphy, as well.
What comes after the mea culpa (and the non mea culpa)?
Indeed, communication is a powerful tool. But, in this case it seems passive and starkly insufficient. AKEBA, the SUNY Plattsburgh Black Student Union, held a town hall meeting on Monday, but this barely scrapes the surface. It behooves administrators to go beyond “discussion” and create a more aggressive plan to promote diversity and combat racism that looms in the locality. Saying “my bad” isn’t enough when students feel threatened in a place where (in theory) they are expected to thrive.
In the words of Jelani Cobb, “Slavery did not begin because of miscommunication.”