Column: U. Arizona Cartoonist Wrongfully Deemed Racist

This story was written by Evan Lisull, Arizona Daily Wildcat
"It's an act of racism that's trying to destroy the progress that this country has made," said one. "(The Editor in Chief) should have a paper trail to follow her wherever she goes," opined another. "This is a direct attack, and a direct offense." These were among the more choice quotes from Wednesday evening's emergency seminar on the instantly controversial cartoon that the Daily Wildcat printed, the cartoon that hinted at the use of the "N-word."

So who is the malignant, backward racist behind this foul piece? According to the artist's biography, "Keith Knight is the 'other' black cartoonist." Wait -- what? Knight has had his original work purchased by Spike Lee; he is a member of a "semi-conscious hip-hop band," the Marginal Prophets. In his blog post on Wednesday, he exulted over Barack Obama's win: "Bravo, America. We took a big step forward in restoring our reputation in the world." It's highly specious to maintain that this man is bigoted against his own race.

Yet the foul word remains, festering on the page -- how can its use be justified? Well, there's a reason this comic is called "Stories from the Campaign Trail": The events depicted actually happened and were reported from the Web site FiveThirtyEight. What this cartoon highlights is a triumph, not a tragedy. In spite of a latent racism that has festered for generations in much of the country, people were able to overcome these tendencies to vote for the man who they believed was more qualified for the job, the color of his skin be damned. Who is more racist: the one who votes for a black person while using offensive slurs, or the one who refuses to vote for any African-American?

Some have accused the timing of the piece as being part of some grand conspiracy to denigrate Obama's accomplishment. They would have you believe that the paper that endorsed a Democratic straight-ticket, that has at best one genuinely conservative columnist, is secretly hateful of the fact that a black man is the president-elect. Far more plausible is the fact that the Wildcat has been a few days behind the news cycle on more than one occasion; and while being behind the news is a journalistic sin, it is by no means an intentional insult against anyone.

Even if this comic weren't an adulation of Obama, it is absurd to act as though speech that isn't politically correct isn't protected. The Wildcat is the independent voice of the students, beholden to no straitjacket of "student values" or "community standards." These decisions are all up to editorial discretion. Time and time again, critics of this cartoon have made the assertion that there is a difference between "hate speech" and "free speech." Fortunately, unlike other nations, the United States is blessed with the First Amendment, under which there is no such distinction. The freedom of speech is not intended to protect only innocuous, uncontroversial speech -- what would be the point? The most rousing defenses of First Amendment rights have all come from protecting extremely offensive speech, whether it be the anti-Semitic slurs in Near v. Minnesota, the KKK in Brandenburg v. Ohio or the flag burning in U.S. v. Johnson.

Again though, none of this matters, since the cartoon is obviously praising the deathblow to such racist tendencies, rather than celebrating racism itself. It is tragic that such a furor over nothing should come literally the day after Obama's triumph. While Obama represents the overturning of the worst kind of identity politics, it would seem that critics of this cartoon are still content to use failed tactics of the past.
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