Three of Illinois’ most powerful black politicians on Thursday denounced the cover art on this week’s Chicago Reader, which features a caricature of Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker sitting atop a black lawn jockey as an FBI agent apparently listens in on his racially charged conversation with disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle joined Chicago City Treasurer Kurt Summers and Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) — all of whom are backing Pritzker for governor — in calling the cover “racist.”

“The Chicago Reader says its cover art featuring the image of a lawn jockey is a ‘wink and a nudge’ that provides historical context for racism,” they wrote in a joint statement. “A ‘wink’ infers subtlety. This cartoon is not subtle and cannot do the work of contextualizing racism because it is in itself racist. At a time when we are having a debate as a state and as a nation about who we are and how insidious racism infects our politics, this image does not advance the thoughtful debate we need and is therefore disappointing.”

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Sawyer, who endorsed Pritzker last year, was among the black leaders who came to Pritzker’s defense after the release earlier this month of the candidate’s 10-year-old FBI-wiretapped conversation with Blagojevich, in which he termed Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White as the “least offensive” option who would cover the governor on “the African-American thing” in the search to fill then-President Elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat. Pritzker also dismissed then-state Senate President Emil Jones as “too crass” for the job.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) | Sun-Times file photo

In a phone interview Thursday, Sawyer, who chairs the City Council Black Caucus, tore into the “race-baiting” cover and demanded an apology from the Reader.

“It’s fanning a fire, just stirring things up about race,” Sawyer said. “I understand what J.B. said, it was inappropriate, we get that. It came out and it is what it is. I think he got rightfully chastised.

“But I think it’s time to move on to talking about something substantial,” Sawyer said. “We’re getting away from the real issues here. It’s a waste.”

Mark Konkol, the alternative weekly’s newly appointed executive editor, defended his first cover, which was designed by Baltimore artist Greg Houston.

“Today’s Reader included a variety of opinions about J.B. Pritzker’s wire-tapped interaction with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, including the candidate’s own statements in his defense,” Konkol wrote in a statement. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion. We stand by our decision to engage readers on important issues of the day by producing journalism and social commentary that gets people talking about uncomfortable topics.”

The Reader is owned by Sun-Times Media, which also owns the Chicago Sun-Times.

Through a campaign spokeswoman, Pritzker said “I knew that they intended to be provocative at the Reader, but I think this is not the right approach.

“As you know, I’ve tried to focus on issues, the issues important to the African American community — things like job creation and making sure that we get a quality education for every child in the African American community as well as every child in the state,” Pritzker said.