Last week, a few Illinois lawmakers made news by accusing an editorial cartoon of being racist. The cartoon, created by Eric Allie for the Illinois Policy Institute website, showed a child representing school children appealing for funds from a man who displays an empty pocket while hiding wads of cash in the other. The cartoon's critics apparently take issue with the fact that the child holding a "Need money 4 school" sign is black.
Choosing to draw a dark-skinned child to represent a school system that is 80 percent minority on its face seems like a reasonable choice. But was the depiction disrespectful? Did it recall an era when cartoonists regularly used exaggerated features to demean African Americans? The answer is "no" to both questions. Allie's child is charming, and the dubious expression on his face perfectly captures the message of the cartoon.
Rather than argue the merits of the point made in the cartoon -- that school funds should not be diverted into developers' pockets -- critics found it easier to turn the issue onto the explosive topic of race. The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists is well aware that depicting ethnicity in cartoons can be problematic, but in this case Allie handled it with skill and sensitivity. Accusations of racism can unfairly demean opposing viewpoints and undermine the spirit of free speech. What's more, baseless attacks undercut attempts to fight real racism when it rears its head.