It was almost a year ago that a rodeo clown donned an Obama mask, and the NAACP demanded that the Secret Service investigate him, and the clown lost his job. It is considered acceptable that in the nation’s capital, five people in big-headed costumes depicting the Mt. Rushmore Presidents (and William Howard Taft) race around a baseball stadium as the crowd laughs at their antics, but any mockery of the current President of the United States will be immediately attacked as “racist.”
Thus an appallingly stupid, tasteless and inappropriate float in a Norfolk, Nebraska Independence Day parade is further straining already damaged race relations in this country, because it depicted a distressed man coming out of an outhouse labelled the “Obama Presidential Library.” The Norfolk Odd Fellows Lodge, which coordinates the annual parade, is defending the float, which was entered as political satire (it even won an award). Others, however, have condemned it as, you guessed it, racist. Here it is:
It isn’t racist. Although many media reports have described the zombie-like figure exiting the outhouse as a representation of the President, it clearly isn’t. Does President Obama use a walker for support? The float’s designer, Dale Remmich, who does use a walker and dresses like the figure on the float, explained that the figure was meant to be Remmich himself, tinged green out of disgust for, among other things, the Veterans Administration fiasco. As for portraying Obama’s future library as an outhouse, that’s not racial imagery, though it is obviously a statement communicating criticism and disrespect. The same imagery would not have puzzled anyone if it had been used to criticize any other recent President; nobody would have looked at the exact same float except with the label “George W. Bush Presidential Library” on the outhouse and said, “I don’t get it. Bush isn’t black.” That’s because it isn’t the design of the float that makes it racist, just as it wasn’t the use of a mask that made the rodeo clown’s act racist, in the eyes of those making the accusation. What makes it racist is the criticism and the mockery, its target. Criticism and mockery of other Presidents went with the territory. Criticism of the first black President is by definition racist.
It’s an old and depressing story by now, pre-dating the 2008 election. Conservative and critics of the President joke about it (though, like the VA scandal and the float itself, its not funny); Democrats, MSNBC pundits and blind supporters of the President continue to perpetrate the canard, pulling out the race card every time Obama’s missteps create a new wave of attacks. In many cases, the sentiments of those who detect racism are sincere: the comments of Norfolk resident Glory Kathurima, quoted here, certainly are. It isn’t surprising, for she is used to racism, the scene of a mostly white crowd laughing at what she may have thought was a crude depiction of black President must have felt like a minstrel show to her, and, again, she has been told over and over again by Melissa Harris-Perry, Chris Matthews, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the NAACP and others that President Obama is a great man who is being robbed of the credit due him by the racism of his enemies. I don’t blame her.
As for the float itself, Remmich, the Odd Fellows and Norfolk—nice job spoiling the Fourth of July, guys. I know the argument: on Independence Day we celebrate our freedom, and nothing symbolizes the Spirit of ’76 more than some old-fashioned mockery of our modern day “king.” If that’s how they want to celebrate the Fourth of July in Nebraska, okay…but I think it is wrong and harmful. This is the one day in the year when Americans should come together to celebrate their shared heritage and values, take pride in the nation’s history and accomplishments, and reaffirm that we are one people, one nation, and one culture. Remmich’s float, in addition to being ugly, inept (if most observers can’t correctly identify the main figure on a float, that’s not good), and unfunny , is divisive, and the parade’s organizers were stunningly obtuse not to realize that it would upset people. The Fourth of July is not the day to intentionally or recklessly upset people, unless they are like Bill Bigelow, who deserve to be upset. There are 364 days a year when satire, mockery and harsh criticism of elected officials are as American as apple pie.
The Fourth of July is not one of them.