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Student Cartoon Sparks Debate Around Issues Of Racism In Plattsburgh

Screen shot from Cardinal Points' website.
College administrators at SUNY Plattsburgh are upset over a cartoon published in a student-run paper, Cardinal Points, last week.


A cartoon published in a student paper at SUNY Plattsburgh is drawing national attention and sparking debate around issues of racism in the Plattsburgh community.

The cartoon, which many have said is racist, appeared in Cardinal Points, a student newspaper. Cardinal Points is not directly under the jurisdiction of SUNY Plattsburgh, but does have a faculty advisor. 

It was published alongside an article titled, "Minority Admission Rates Examined."

Journalist Felice León wrote about the cartoon in her piece, “College Paper Prints The Most Racist Front Page in America” for the Daily Beast.

As she describes it:

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 piece, which appeared in the paper and online Oct. 23, has since been taken down. It is still visible through a cached version of the Cardinal Points website.

Credit Screen shot from cached version of Cardinal Points website.
Screen shot from cached version of Cardinal Points website.
The cartoon in question, shown here in a screenshot from a cached version of the Cardinal Points article, was published Oct. 23 but taken down sown after as a result of community backlash.

In addition to taking down the piece, an apology message was posted Oct. 25 to the Cardinal Points website addressing the controversy:

Many of you may have seen the illustration on top of the front page of this week’s Cardinal Points, accompanying the article “Minority admission rates examined.” 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 African American 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. Please know that we do not take this lightly and are using this as a constructive learning experience because we wish, more than anything, to remain an outlet of positivity and inclusion, where all members of our community feel safe and respected.

In a statement emailed to campus community sent Thursday, SUNY Plattsburgh President John Ettling addressed the controversy and announced the administration's plans "to help (the) campus heal and move forward." 

As I have already written, the front-page illustration in Cardinal Points does not reflect our values. It is patently offensive, and it was an egregious error to publish it. And while we respect and will continue to maintain the editorial independence of the student paper, we are deeply concerned about the lack of action the paper has taken since the publication of the illustration. It is imperative for Cardinal Points to set a clear course for the future and play a key role in the campus healing process.

Ettling went on to outline the immediate actions being taken that he called, "only the beginning," of what must be done. 

— I am naming Dr. J.W. Wiley as chief diversity officer for the campus. He will report directly to me. The appointment is effective immediately. — We will develop a long-term plan to increase support for ethnic and cultural diversity on campus. Formulation of the plan, which will include campus-wide involvement, will be overseen by the chief diversity officer. A comprehensive Diversity Task Force, made up of faculty, staff, students, and community representatives, was recently reconstituted and will play an important role in formulating this plan. — I am resurrecting the Multicultural Alliance. Historically a catalyst for student-group programming, its mission will expand to include more student leaders, serve as a place for physical and emotional support for multicultural students, and work with the chief diversity officer. — In conjunction with the alliance, we will schedule a Diversity Week early next semester. This new annual event will include the participation of faculty, staff, students, and the wider community. Highlights of the week will include programming, forums, workshops, training, and speakers focused on matters of ethnic, cultural, and other differences. — We will engage more deeply with the greater Plattsburgh and Clinton County communities. This is our home. We have a responsibility as a college to be a steward of place. Our leadership in matters of diversity, social justice, understanding, and respect is required. We will do this more proactively and directly.

Update 5:15 pm: to include the addition of a statement from SUNY Plattsburgh President, John Ettling and to include audio of our interview with journalist Felice León.

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Alex was a reporter and host of VPR's local All Things Considered. He was also the co-host and co-creator of the VPR program Brave Little State.
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