Racist Cartoons: The Difficulty of Making a Social Critique
I arrived on campus to teach this morning only to find that students are immersed in yet another controversial sequence of events that demonstrates just how far Lexington (and the University of Kentucky) has to go in terms of racial reconciliation.
Last Friday’s issue of The Kentucky Kernel, UK’s campus newspaper, ran a cartoon that crudely depicts a slave auction. A local television news affiliate has included a glimpse of the cartoon and a brief description of its contents, but an article in The Kentucky Hearld-Leader does a much better job of explaining the content and the consequences of the cartoon. Appropriately, hundreds of UK students have protested the cartoon. The way it relies on stereotypes is simply unjustifiable, and both the cartoonist and the Kernel editor have apologized profusely. How they could have overlooked this cartoon’s offensiveness is beyond me.
However, I think that the discussion in this cartoon’s aftermath has the potential to be productive. The cartoon demonstrates just how difficult it is to stage an insightful and poignant social critique of institutions that are morally suspect. I will assume that the cartoon intended to take a jab at UK’s Greek life, which, like many other universities in the South, has remained as a set of virtually segregated organizations.
The cartoon broaches an issue that has been on peoples’ minds for some time now. A recent editorial in the Kentucky Kernel argued that UK can never begin to pretend that “historically black” fraternities and sororities will ever be equal to “historically white” fraternities and sororities because no black Greek organization has a house on or near UK’s campus at all. What’s striking about this comment isn’t just that black Greek organizations have been marginalized, but that the author of this editorial uncritically assumes that “black” and “white” Greek life is a natural order. It’s the same logic of segregation that informs the way many people talk about my neighborhood. When they say that it’s a “historically black” neighborhood, they mean that it’s a black neighborhood. The “historically” softens the reality that many neighborhoods are essentially segregated, and it masks the injustice of that segregation.
In the outrage that has followed this cartoon, I’m afraid that many people will overlook the real critique that’s going on here. It’s somewhat unfortunate that Brad Fletcher, the cartoonist, conceded in his apology that he did not “wish to belittle the efforts Greeks have made to integrate their organizations.” I’d like to hear more about what these efforts are before I so willingly extol Fletcher for making this apology.
There’s a strong possibility that Fletcher’s cartoon, albeit inappropriate, contains an important critique of Greek life in many colleges and universities, not just at UK. Fletcher, just a sophomore undergraduate, doesn’t have to be a professional sociologist to look around and realize that there doesn’t appear to be much interaction between races in Greek organizations on campus. Racial reconciliation doesn’t seem to be the primary agenda of any Greek establishment. Instead, fraternities and sororities exist so that young adults can solidify their class and racial identities. All other fringe benefits to Greek life, such as friendship, drinking cheaply, community service, etc. play second fiddle to this primary function.
A quick look at some research reveals that Fletcher’s intuition that UK Greek life is highly problematic in terms of racial reconciliation is not way off base. Just six years ago, an article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education highlighted the continuing segregation of Greek life at the University of Alabama. Another 1998 article in GW Hatchet, an independent student newspaper, deals with the “historically white” and “historically black” issue in Greek life. More recently, a two part series in the University of Michigan student newspaper admits the intrinsic problem of Greek life and racism.
Clearly, many of UKs benchmark institutions are seriously questioning the time-worn tradition of Greek life on university campuses. Perhaps what sets UK apart from these institutions is the skill and tact with which such discussions are broached. But the deed has been done. I hope that Fletcher’s cartoon will act as the impetus for informed criticism of Greek life and its social function.