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Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 12:21 am

Drawing fire

A cartoon again excites believers

Chicago political reporter Charles Thomas


A draft version of this piece was posted in error. The version that follows is the corrected one.

- JKJr.

At least no one demanded that insulting images be suppressed a la Charlie Hebdo. No blood at the publisher was shed, and no one issued a fatwa against the artist, even if ritual murder was in the air around the Statehouse. Beyond that there was little that was edifying about the cartoon controversy – I intend that phrase in all its meanings – at the Statehouse last week.

The image in question, of course, was part of the editorial cartoon that Eric Allie drew for the Illinois Policy Institute. It shows an African-American kid in a Cubs cap begging for money for Chicago Public Schools from a rich white man who tells him, “Sorry, kid. I’m broke,” even though his pocket overflows with cash labeled “TIF $.” We won’t here discuss the issue the drawing addresses. What mattered was people’s reaction to the drawing itself. Mayor Rahm Emanuel described the cartoon as “unambiguously racist.” It’s certainly unambiguously racial. And (depending on the audience) racially inflammatory. But racist?

The kid was widely likened to Little Black Sambo, but that’s almost as ill-observed as Allie’s image. Sambo’s African features were exaggerated to make fun of Africans; the Africanness of Allie’s version makes a polemical rather than comical point about African Americans as victims. It is the polemic, not the image, that I found offensive. CPS is not a “black” school system; the enrollment is 62 percent un-black and only about a quarter of the teaching staff is African-American. So why was the supplicant characterized as African-American? Pretty plainly, to excite those who believe that any public money spent on anything or anyone black is wasted. I find this view ill-informed, but it is a political cartoon, which exaggerate to make a point even at the risk of giving offense.

But who exactly took offense? Charles Thomas, an experienced Chicago political reporter and radio commentator who is African-American, said on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, “We can’t assume that the cartoon was racist.” Reminded by his host that legislators “unanimously” decried it as racist, Thomas replied, “black people did not say that.” Black legislators, yes, black people no. Thomas explained that black people of Chicago see real racism on the job and on the streets every day. (A cop who believes that all blacks are thugs because they are black is a real racist.) However offensive they found the cartoon, Thomas suggested, his black audience regarded it as trivial.

IPI CEO John Tillman said some of the agitation was contrived by people “who want to introduce the subject to get political gain,” forgetting in all the hubbub perhaps that his cartoonist introduced race to get political gain in the fight over school funding. Tillman’s id, propagandist Dan Proft, said the same thing in ruder language, calling the allegations of racism a smear tactic by “race hustlers and identity politics simps.” Proft, who is never quite right about anything, here was not quite wrong; certainly there was no lack of people delighted to be handed a chance to brand a political opponent a racist.

Oh, there was genuine outrage too, much of which seemed to come from the younger among the press and political staffs, members of a generation who went to colleges where mere insults are considered tantamount to blows. These snowflakes would have melted to puddles in the Galesburg of Carl Sandburg’s youth. “We believed that the sheenies on the quiet might be calling us ‘snorkies’ and calling the Irish ‘micks’ and that would be all right with us be­cause that’s what we were,” he wrote. “But if they called us ‘goddam snorkies’ or ‘goddam micks’ then we would look for bricks to heave.”

J. B. Pritzker’s running mate, Juliana Stratton struck a common note. “You’re making this more difficult than it needs to be, @GovRauner. The cartoon was racist. Just say it.” Rauner’s reluctance to say it – and his obvious anger at being hectored to do so – was proof to some that he himself is a racist. Me, I figure he just doesn’t like being bullied into endorsing a popular creed. The spectacle reminded of an ugly incident from World War II. Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to salute the U.S. flag, or any flag, which offended the red-blooded patriots of Litchfield to assault a group Witnesses proselytizing in that town; taken to the jail for safety, some male Witnesses were forced by bystanders to salute or kiss a flag as they entered the jail.

As she was being pushed out the door, Rauner spokeswoman Laurel Patrick stopped long enough to explain that the governor “would never try to talk anyone out of their reaction to any piece of art, political or nonpolitical, right or left, good or bad. Those reactions deserve respect on their own terms.” By the end of that week, this unexpected defense of freedom of expression was as welcome as it was unexpected. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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