Monday, August 27, 2007

Don't Snitch, Times-Union: Race Lessons Learned From "A Good Little Ho"

Is there any way to reasonably say "now that's a good little ho" in a 150,000+ circulation newspaper cartoon?

I admit that I'm a little late to the discussion regarding the flareup over at the Florida Times-Union regarding a cartoon that addressed the "don't snitch" culture. But I've been reading all the reactions from it and after a short discussion today about covering race with ABC broadcast veterans Arlene Morgan and Alice Pifer, I'd like to throw my two bits into the ring.

First, some background: The cartoon depicted a black man standing over his gunshot victim and wearing a "Don't snitch" T-shirt. After a little girl standing nearby says "I didn't see nuttin'!" the assailant says, "Now that's a good little ho!" Of course, reaction ensued, which you can read in aggregate on Romenesko.

So after reading about this all week, I must ask a few questions of cartoonist Ed Gamble and his editor:

  • Regardless of the subject matter, did you really think using the post-Don Imus word "ho" wouldn't get you into hot water? (No.)
  • If the cartoon appeared in a publication with a reader base largely African-American, would the cartoon have garnered the same outcry? (Dunno.)
  • Do I believe you drew it to shed light on the 'snitch' culture? (Yes.)
  • Is a cartoon a good one if it needs further explanation? (I don't think so.)

Here's some reaction from other journalists, pulled from the Times-Union outlay on the issue:

"Has anyone out there run a better cartoon on the Don't Snitch subculture?" asked Dennis Mangan, editorial editor of The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio, one of several who praised the cartoon.

"My guess: No. The cartoon captured the ugliness of Don't Snitch today and the danger it represents to the next generation," Mangan said. "You can't ask for more."

Joel Pett, the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist at the Lexington (Ky.,) Herald-Leader, lauded it for provoking a discussion of important issues. But others disagreed.

"So many things to find disgusting about the cartoon," said Lynne Varner, a columnist and editorial writer for the Seattle Times. She criticized the "stereotype of African-Americans using poor grammar" and the cartoon's reliance on rappers as thugs and criminals when in reality the vast majority are not.

"A successful cartoon could have challenged the pervasive lawlessness seen in some cities without employing stereotypes, which because they're so widely accepted, didn't raise eyebrows at the cartoonist's paper," said Varner.

Really, the whole situation has left me frustrated -- you've got the problems of equating snitching with African-Americans, equating poor grammar with both of the aforementioned categories, and above all, the core problem of a good idea that was poorly executed. So what have we learned this week, then, as journalists?

Well, for starters, you might want to consult someone who you think may be offended by the cartoon and see what they say and why. That kind of editorial 'stepping into another's shoes' is not a requirement, but it's a good idea. "Even the best-intentioned person may have blind spots," Alice Pifer mentioned today, and I agree with her. Gamble, or his editor, should have consulted someone else -- possibly African-American, but more importantly someone closer to the snitching culture, whatever the color of their skin.

But above all, I think we've learned that race continues to be a provoking subject and that we shouldn't make assumptions: After all, should we assume African-Americans -- uneducated and demeaning, to boot -- are the only ones who 'snitch'? If that's exclusively true, fine -- but Gamble should have known what he was inferring with the cartoon. There are too many variables -- if 'snitching' was the point, African-American, "ho" and "nuttin'" shouldn't have been.

A cartoonist is a master at expressing a view on a subject in one glance. I think in the end, Gamble got close, but stumbled. What do you think?


Kay Day said...

I really don't think he did--I think he meant it to be raw, cutting and harsh.

Here's why. We've had at least half a dozen children killed in our city where the T-U is published, one of them in her bedroom, a 13-year-old, reading a book. Her assailant was a trigger-happy stranger.

In Jax, the majority of these murders occur in a geographic area on the Northside (not a sic; we cap and connect the areas of the city here for reasons I don't fathom.)

In these areas, there is a culture of fear and anger towards authorities. I'll leave it to you to come up with imaginative reasons for it. I can hear the choir singing 'poverty' now.

But the fact is children are dying and many are young men, most of them young, black men.

You'd really need to be familiar with the area perhaps to understand the city's frustration. Cops are frustrated because people won't testify. Why? They're scared as hell. Why? Check out for the lists of gangs here and you'll get an idea.

Even if you discount everything I've told you, the cartoonist came up with his artistic rendering of a social situation. That it is politically incorrect is often the case with art. You can make a subjective decision about the worth of the cartoon, but I'd give it a 10. He told it like it is, despite the criticism he surely knew would follow.

This isn't just a problem in Jax--remember the African-American teen killed on a street corner in L.A.? And the teens in Newark? Nobody talks, there's no justice.

The minute you start filtering art, you erode the freedom of speech distinguishing our nation from most others in the world.

Regarding language and stereotypes, bear in mind I support all artists in their right to express their ideas regardless of how I feel. Even gangsta' rappers and even Carson McCullers, who wrote a beautiful story no longer included in high school English studies because, you guessed it, it's politically incorrect, a sign of the sophistic indigination of our times, a sign of the abandonment of common sense.

best to you, Kay Day

P.S. I write for newspapers as a freelancer, so consider this a disclosure completely unrelated to my passion about the subject at hand.

The Editorialiste said...

@kay: Thanks so much for commenting. Your words are relevant for your passion and your local knowledge.

I can agree that the problem is bad. But I don't imagine how "that's a good little ho" could contribute to the seriousness of the problem. Using the subject as a topic for a cartoon was raw, cutting and harsh -- was it just me or did the "good little ho" line just come off as an artistic flourish?

I'm right there with the next person (and you) about not filtering art. So in principle, I'm with you. If the artist planned on receiving outrage, fine. But if he was surprised to have to defend himself, he should have thought about how "ho" is interpreted post-Imus.

I personally didn't find it to be an egregious cartoon. But I'm just one voice -- one who happens to live by public housing in Brooklyn.

Thanks so much for commenting and please keep reading and doing so,
The Editorialiste.