Racist Cartoon Disgraces State University in New York

By Sheryl Estrada


Last week, the cover of the State University of New York’s (SUNY) Plattsburgh campus’student newspaper featured a cartoon portraying a Black male with a wide smile and bulging eyes in a cap and gown walking through a run-down urban neighborhood.

The article coinciding with the illustration, titled “Minority Admission Rates Examined,” focuses on the growth of diversity at SUNY Plattsburgh as well as other schools across the nation.

Cardinal Points is an independently owned and operated student newspaper, which the college says it has no editorial control over. Both the illustration and its creator offended students.

“Great article, but what is this” said a Black male student, pointing to the illustration during an interview with WPTZ. “I’m from New York City. There’s no community that looks like that, a broken stop sign, burnt-out buildings and cars that look that way.”

“Honestly, they could have took pictures of a Black student reading a book,” another Black male student added.

According to The Daily Beast, which ran the headline “College Paper Prints The Most Racist Front Page in America,” Jonny Zajac created the cartoon and posted it on Instagram with the caption, “My favorite person in Plattsburg #ni**ers.” Instagram has since deleted the tag and the account has been suspended.

Students also posted objection to the cartoon on Twitter:

The procedural apologies soon followed. Cardinal Points editors published an apology on Sunday for printing the cartoon:

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.

College President John Ettling said he found the cartoon “personally offensive.” He said the following in a statement posted on the school’s website on Monday:

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 SUNY Plattsburgh is committed to recruiting a diverse mix of students who can benefit from a meaningful and wide educational experience for all students.

“Depending upon the quality of the image you actually may have seen/received, it depicts the Black graduate as a stereotypical image, a caricature from the Jim Crow era, or earlier in what is known as blackface,” said Dr. J.W. Wiley director of the college’s Center for Diversity, Pluralism and Inclusion.

“This was a procedural failure on the part of the students,” Jonathan Slater, the Department of Journalism and Public Relations chair, said in an interview.

Slater was commenting on behalf of the Cardinal Pointsstaff adviser, Shawn Murphy, who was not available for a comment.

He said the newspaper is distributed on Fridays, and a procedural review of the content takes place every Monday to see what worked and what didn’t. There is also a preemptive review process of the paper’s text and images.

Slater could not address the review process, which takes place before the paper goes to print, as he does not supervise the practicum.

“We expect them [students] to use this experience as a tool for their future careers,” Slater said.

Another incident of perpetuating racial stereotypes occurred at Princeton University in April. A performance by the Princeton Urban Congo, a student group of white males on Princeton’s swim and diving teams, went viral on social media and placed a spotlight on race relations at the school.

Dressed in loincloths, the young men practiced what they described as a humorous “percussion experimentation”; however, it served essentially as a mockery of African culture. The performance offended many Black students in the Princeton community.

Apologies came from the president of Urban Congo and Princeton University PresidentChristopher L. Eisgruber.

Both SUNY Plattsburgh and Princeton are predominantly white schools where offensive racial stereotypes of students of color have been perpetuated. A filmmaker provides some insight on why this happens.

The 2014 film Dear White People, directed by Justin Simien, takes place at a fictional Ivy League campus and satirizes race relations and racial identity.

In an interview with NPR last October, Simien explained some of his college experiences that resulted in scenes similar to those in the film:

There were coded parties, there were “the pimps and the hoes” parties. … You kind of come dressed as a pimp or a ho, that’s sort of the general theme, but it’s really, it’s a coded way of sort of coming as a Black stereotype, just to keep it real I’ve only experienced it in really groups of white people.

His explanation sheds light on why students like the staff of theCardinal Points newspaper or the members of the Urban Congo group feel it is okay to exercise white privilege:

This is the sort of thing that kind of happens with sort of closed cultural loops of people that in some way want to interact with some sphere of culture, but they don’t have any actual friends or people in their lives that are sort of representatives of that culture and can easily say, “this is super offensive, don’t do it.”

Apologies in instances such as these are not enough. Clearly, Cardinal Points’ editorial staff needs more diversity. SUNY Plattsburgh should also take the lead in creating more dialogue about race and education on racial stereotypes.

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