It's understandable that the editorial staff at The Daily Texan is breathing a sigh of relief right now. After quickly apologizing and sacking its cartoonist Stephanie Eisner, the Editorial Board undoubtedly believes it can quickly move on from this episode. That's a real shame, and the paper should reinstate Eisner.
Much of the criticism focused on the use of the word “colored” in the cartoon. Protesters argued that this word was a highly derogatory and antiquated reference to African-Americans, and that using this word belittled Trayvon Martin.
But back in 2008 Lindsay Lohan used the term “colored” to describe then President-elect Obama in a television interview with Access Hollywood. Instead of protests and threats of ending Lohan's career, Lohan got a clean bill of health from the NAACP. Indeed, the nation's largest African-American civil rights organization noted that the term “colored” is neither derogatory nor offensive. It's a bit of a double standard to give Lohan a free pass on the use of the word “colored” while excoriating Eisner for doing the same.
At any rate, does anyone really think that these protesters would have been mollified by a word other than “colored”? Suppose that the term “black” or “African-American” were inserted in its stead. Would there truly be no outrage?
George Carlin once famously stated, “Language is all about context, and words have different meanings.” The cartoon's critics evidently ignored the words “THE MEDIA” etched on the chair. The woman in the chair, who also personified the national media, read aloud a crude and oversimplified narrative of the tragedy in racialist terminology. Instead of acknowledging the complex and multifaceted nature of the murder, the national media persistently focused on race and race above all else.
That's why Eisner's statement that the cartoon was an indictment of base racialism should be at least considered at face value. Even a cursory interpretation of the cartoon that sees the cartoon as belittling Martin's death has flaws. Stripped of adjectives, any statement would ultimately boil down to “a man murdered a boy”. Even if one set aside race in the tragedy for a moment, no journalism, yellow or otherwise, could change the veracity of that statement. How can anyone belittle the gravity of such an awful truth?
But I digress. Even if you entirely disagree with me, and hold that Eisner's cartoon is intrinsically racist to the core, you'd be hard pressed to deny a double standard in her firing. It's evident that Eisner did not set out to deliberately provoke or offend, but professional editorial cartoonists who do seek to raise tempers don't get booted from the payroll.
In 2008 the cartoonist Barry Blitt drew a cover for The New Yorker that outraged rank-and-file liberals: The Obamas, dressed in Islamic fundamentalist garb, gave each other a fist bump in the White House as American flag burned in the fireplace. Rahm Emanuel, then a Congressman, angrily declared that he would be canceling his subscription to The New Yorker. Blitt argued that he was satirizing the Right's obsession with linking Obama to radical Islam, much as Eisner says she satirized the national media's obsession with race in the Trayvon Martin case.
The following year, The New York Post's cartoonist Sean Delonas caused a firestorm of controversy with a cartoon of a dead chimpanzee and two Connecticut police officers. In the cartoon, one of the cops remarks, “They'll have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill”. African-American leaders were justifiably outraged at the apparent depiction of President Obama as a primate, and the Post offered an apology to those offended.
Both Blitt and Delonas drew controversial cartoons far less implicit in their capability to cause outrage and indignation. In Blitt's case, the cartoon sought to ruffle feathers. Yet both men kept their jobs and continued to provide illustrations for their respective publications. Eisner, by contrast, was sacked for a far more ambiguous and arguably far less offensive cartoon.
This is a fundamental unfairness that The Daily Texan should rectify. Other than the UT Shuttle System and the Nursing School, The Daily Texan is my favorite institution at UT. I used to write for them as an opinion columnist, so I understand what it feels like to be pilloried by the campus community for my views. But freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend, and Eisner did not seek to offend. I have a petition on Change.org calling for her reinstatement, and I urge you to sign it.