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Teaching Tool: The Advantages and Limitations of a Race-Themed Political Cartoon

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Humor can be an effective vehicle for delivering a serious message. Whether it is in the form of satire, parody or simple ridicule, the most powerful statements are sometimes delivered in a way that makes us laugh before we think.

On the RaceProject Facebook page this week, we reposted (from a tweet from SocProf) a link to a book review that contains a political cartoon by Barry Deutsch titled "A Concise History of Black-White Relations in the United States." It is a simple, six-panel strip that conveys a clear, accurate message of contemporary misunderstandings about White privilege and progressive strategies for achieving racial justice. But, as we note in our blog every week, these issues are never as simple as they seem. We offer a "concise" analysis of the advantages and limitations of using this cartoon in the classroom to help students understand the complex history of Black-White relations in the United States.


The primary advantage of using humor is that it can be disarming. More and more teachers are using clips from Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show or The Colbert Report to stimulate conversation about current events. Students like to laugh, and they appreciate when teachers deviate from the course readings. So the first advantage is that a comic strip can get students to pay attention and to be engaged.

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Substantively, there are several advantages, as well. The strip is an accurate overview of American history in this regard: Slavery was a way for Whites to gain advantage disproportionate to what they could have without it (panes 1 through 3), African Americans fought hard for legal emancipation and won it (pane 4), Whites feel guilty about slavery and the history of oppression and are (genuinely) sorry about it (pane 5), and many Whites are reluctant to support any effort to rectify those past wrongs that involves violation of the meritocracy principle (pane 6).

The final pane actually contains two narratives. The first centers on the refusal to embrace approaches that involve a perceived disadvantage to Whites, but the smaller image and print in the lower right-hand corner of the pane invokes the idea that Whites' view these issues as being individualistic rather than systemic. The White character says "[I]f I got up here myself, why can't you?," even though it was only a few panes ago (seconds in the time that it takes someone to read the strip) that he 1) clearly does not get up there himself (panes 1 through 4) and 2) acknowledges as much with his apology (pane 5). This friction between fact and myth is an advantage in the classroom because it forces students to confront the reasons behind the character's social amnesia and the degree to which it accurately reflects the reality of Black-White relations in the United States today.


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For all its benefits, Deutsch would likely admit that there are dangers to this. After all, part of the reason that the humor works is that it is patently silly to believe that such a simple story can accurately capture the nuance of 400 years of history. By titling the strip "A Concise History. . ." the artist is giving us a wink, acknowledging that while there is nothing substantively astray here overall, it is a deliberate, recognized oversimplification.

That oversimplification will be recognized by sophisticated, thoughtful readers, but it may be lost on folks who do not have a strong knowledge base with respect to the complexities of race relations in America. If one believes, for instance, that "racism" ended with the signing of the landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s, that Brown v. the Board of Education integrated public schools in the U.S., and that affirmative action means quotas, this cartoon is unlikely to be an effective tool to combat those inaccuracies.

The "problem" is not solvable because the core of the limitation is also central to the strip's advantages. That is, by allowing individual characters to stand in for power systems, the artist is able to simply and effectively capture the reality of race relations while he intentionally fundamentally misrepresents the problem in a way that is likely to perpetuate it.

As is indicated in the final exchange in pane 6, Deutsch clearly understands that Whites' insistence on personalization is foolish because it decontextualizes the issue. The White character is the foil because he either refuses to or is unable to recognize that he has benefited from racism and continues to do so by opposing an action that would help to make things more fair (helping the Black man whom he used to gain his advantage). Because the strip accelerates history, the same characters appear in all six panes to reflect a time period, which, in reality, spans generations. White students will likely (and appropriately) note that while they may be the White character in the final pane, their situation is different because unlike the character, they were not present in the first four panes (the familiar "I never owned a slave" defense). They might argue that they arrived in the fifth pane, in fact, which shows that their entire lives have been spent feeling guilty about and "apologizing" for America's racist history.

The truth, of course, is that Whites who are living today have very much been present in those first few panes in some ways. While there has not been formal slavery of African Americans (of the kind depicted by the ball and chain) in our lifetime, Whites as a group are provided a "lift up" on the backs of persons of color. But that lift is not visible, it is not universally true on an individual basis, it is certainly not literal, and most Whites do not feel as if such a statement is accurate at all. Indeed, it takes a lot of reading, thinking and guidance for most Whites to understand the power and pervasiveness of the relatively invisible concept of White privilege. It is likely impossible for that story to be understood through a "concise" narrative of any kind.

The Black character in the strip is sympathetic; the White character is not. In the meta-narrative of race relations, this is probably fair, but at the individual level, it certainly is not. Individual White people have not, on the whole, acted in ways that are detrimental to Blacks. They do not consciously refuse to accept responsibility for their privilege and, it should be noted, are not directly responsible for that privilege the way that the White character in the strip is. In short, while the White character in the strip was aware of what he was doing when he took advantage of privilege and then adds insult to injury by not rectifying the situation once he realized it was inappropriate, the lived experiences of White individuals in America today cannot be captured by that dynamic.

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There is a great deal of defensiveness on the part of Whites to any suggestion to the contrary, and this strip may evoke those feelings in Whites who encounter it. As those who are involved in the struggle for social justice know all too well, cutting through folks' defenses is a fundamental step toward consciousness raising.

The Verdict

We think that the advantages of this strip outweigh the limitations for college-age students (adults), which is the population with which we work. Because it can stimulate discussion and help to generate the type of analysis that we briefly offer here, we think it is a good way to explore some of the underlying constructs that hide below the surface of our contemporary political discourse on race.

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Stephen Maynard Caliendo is associate professor of political science at North Central College. Charlton McIlwain is associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. They are co-authors of the forthcoming book "Race (more...)

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