Yesterday I tweeted a Slate piece about the Obama rodeo clown, saying it “should be the last piece written” on the subject, since it so succinctly captured my thoughts on the subject at the time. When I tweeted it, I though to myself, wouldn’t it be funny if I ended up blogging about the subject after I said that? And thus, here we are.
This morning I had a revelation. Of course it’s not racist to wear a mask of the President, even if he happens to be black. It’s not even racist for a rodeo clown to do so in the course of his act. Presidents get made fun of all the time, by writers, actors, musicians, artists, and comedians. However, when you find out the full context of who was in the audience and how it was viewed, it’s hard to deny that the stunt was wholly inappropriate.
This, from the Washington Post this morning:
It was a joke, they said, overblown by a news media that’s hypersensitive to any possible slight against the nation’s first black president. They said the hooting and hollering from the crowd that night was because of a fundamental dislike of the president.
“I’ve got no respect for him,” said Virgil Henke, 65, a livestock farmer who explained his distaste for Obama with several falsehoods about his background: “Why, he’s destroyed this country. How much freedom have we lost? I don’t care whether it’s a black man in office, but we have to have a true-blooded American. I think he is Muslim and trying to destroy the country, catering to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.”
The Wednesday crowd at the fair, which lasts 11 days in remote Sedalia, was overwhelmingly white. Some vendors played right-wing talk radio from boom boxes at their tents. One vendor sold
“rebel pride” hats emblazoned with Confederate flags for $8 each. Another, who would only be identified as “Dennis the Sticker Dude” because he was afraid of government retaliation, hawked car decal stickers featuring a cartoon boy urinating on Obama.
Henke said he sometimes surfs the Internet for Web sites making fun of Obama and his family. For instance, he said, one site he looks at compares “Obama’s wife to a monkey — they have the
same expression. The media makes it all hate. I don’t hate a black person. It’s just funny.”
At the rodeo here last Saturday night, a clown wearing an Obama mask stood on the arena’s dirt floor, propped up like a straw man with the appearance that a broom stick was going up his backside. A second clown called him “ya big goober.” Before letting the bull loose to charge at the clown with the Obama mask, the second clown provided live narration over the
This was not just a rodeo clown who happened to be in an Obama mask while doing his job. This was a vile effigization of a black President by and for a rabid community of racists, whether they know or admit it or not.
A useful example of the difference between how an event occurs and how it is perceived is the Shirley Sherrod scandal. In 2010, a video surfaced of a USDA employee speaking to an NAACP group about how during the course of her work assisting farmers she said she didn’t help the white farmers as much as she could have. Andrew Breitbart broke the story and released it in pieces for the fullest media effect. It was soon discovered (after the Obama administration had already had her fired) that in the full speech, Sherrod said she felt bad about not helping the white farmers, and Breitbart was attacked for “selectively editing” the tape to use in a race-based witch hunt. Breitbart’s point the whole time was not about Sherrod at all, but about the reaction of the NAACP audience. Sherrod redeemed herself later in the speech, but while she was talking about not helping the white farmers, the audience was nodding and cheering approvingly.
The rodeo clown is the same. The problem isn’t the clown wearing the Obama mask, but how the audience receives it. In this case, the audience viewed it through their existing dislike of the President for racial, ideological, or other reasons, and it fueled that animosity. Unfortunately the resulting media overreaction only did further damage by positioning the event and all those involved, ironically, as victims of oppression.
This is of course not to say that we can’t criticize President Obama lest some racist passerby take it the wrong way. But we must be aware of our audience and, yes, sensitive to Obama’s unique position in our cultural history. Skewer him on policy all you want, but leave the actual skewering in effigy in the dark recesses of your mind, please. We are better than this.