Georgia Corrections Department criticized for 'very distasteful' cotton-themed holiday photo

Elise Solé

The Georgia Department of Corrections is getting slammed for a holiday company photo depicting the staff standing in a cotton field.

On Tuesday, activist and reporter Shaun King shared the photo on his Facebook page, where it got 8.3K reactions, nearly 4K shares, and thousands of comments from people debating the potential offensiveness of the image.

Some were truly bothered by the undertones: “…This is very distasteful, especially during the particular state that our country is in,” wrote one person. Another said, “I wonder if they made sure the only black people in the photo were seated front and center on purpose. You’d think they were perfectly aware of the perspective a lot of people would be viewing this pic.”

Among other comments: “This setting probably shouldn’t be an issue, however, knowing the history of what the cotton fields represented for African Americans in Georgia and the current state of intolerance in our country … GA DOC really should have done better. RIP to this picture.”

Others felt the issue was overblown. “Why is that offensive?” wrote one person. “That’s a major part of our lives here. We are surrounded by cotton fields as that is what feeds a lot of families here. That’s one of our cash crops. Every single one of you is wearing that cotton right now. We also grow peaches and pecans and peanuts.”

Someone else wrote: “This is a reach. It’s a plant. I don’t find this offensive at all. We can’t be overly sensitive and look for every tiny excuse to cry out. We have far too many serious issues going on for that.”

The association between cotton and racism, once America’s No. 1 export, stems from when it served as a means of labor for enslaved black people. “Cotton has long since vanished as an economic powerhouse in America, but the relics of cotton — a black underclass in the North and South, with its destructive behavioral characteristics — remain long after slavery, sharecropping, and legal segregation have disappeared,” wrote Gene Dattel in the 2009 book Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power.

Yahoo Lifestyle could not reach a representative from the Georgia Department of Corrections to confirm the authenticity of the photo, which is not present on the agency’s Facebook page. However, the department posted another holiday image featuring many of the same staff members posing in Christmas sweaters.

Earlier today, the Corrections Department issued an apology and removed its original post of the photo:

According to Anita Jones Thomas, dean of the College of Applied Behavior Sciences at the University of Indianapolis and a specialist in multicultural psychology, the image begs for an explanation.

“When you think of race relations and the history of criminal justice, history dictates that African-American people haven’t always been treated fairly, so it becomes even more important for correction agencies to consider the message they’re sending,” Thomas tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

“If the message is ‘Happy holidays,’ there’s snow and sweaters,” she adds. “It’s hard to see how a cotton field relates to the holiday season, the Department of Corrections, or even the state of Georgia.”

Similar issues about cotton arose in September. The crafts store Hobby Lobby received backlash when a Texas shopper named Daniell Rider became outraged by a cotton floral display, writing on Facebook: “This decor is WRONG on SO many levels. There is nothing decorative about raw cotton. … A commodity which was gained at the expense of African-American slaves. A little sensitivity goes a long way. PLEASE REMOVE THIS ‘décor.’” The photo went viral and Rider was called overly sensitive and “brain dead” for her stance.

And the president of Lipscomb University in Nashville issued an apology to African-American students for inviting them to a dinner at his home, where the table was decorated with cotton stalks.

The intent behind the photo cannot be known, but according to Thomas, for some, the image reflects a negative historical legacy. “No one thought, Hmmm? when taking the photo?” she says. “It was a bad choice.”

Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle:

Follow us on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter for nonstop inspiration delivered fresh to your feed, every day.