The Obama Outhouse Float: Not Racist, Just Wrong

Racist float? Why not? Well, a) Bill Clinton's not black b) it's not a 4th of July parade, c) this is in Germany and d) it's not Obama.

Racist float? Why not? Well, a) Bill Clinton’s not black b) it’s not a 4th of July parade, c) the parade is in Germany and d) most important of all, it’s not President Obama.

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:

Obama float

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.

________________________________

Sources: Washington Post, CBS, KTIV, Journal Star, Omaha.com,

38 thoughts on “The Obama Outhouse Float: Not Racist, Just Wrong

  1. I get that it is a stupid float, and has little or nothing to do with July 4th, and, hence, is unethical. What I don’t get is how it’s racist. In Nebraska, only black people have outhouses? Unlikely, that.

  2. I believe many of the parade watchers assumed that the figure outside of it was intended to be President Obama. And, of course, in our tense political environment, any criticism of the President or satire directed at him is considered racist.

  3. One more reason the dumb thing shouldn’t have been approved. It was a lousy, incompetent, confusing float. Were some of those who applauded and laughed at the float racists? Sure. And some were angry about the VA. And some were angry about Iraq, or Bergdahl, or the IRS. Some were undoubtedly morons, or just surprised at the outhouse image.

  4. Considering that Democrats previously named sewage treatment plants after GWB, I see this as simply turn-about as fair play.

      • Actually I don’t think I ever heard you say “turnabout isn’t fair play” in so many words, but if it’s up and I just didn’t read it, shame on me.

  5. Even I who admits that I don’t like Obama much, thinks that the float was in extremely bad taste and never should should been allowed to be in a 4th of July celebration parade. Truly disgusting.

    • I agree, someone was asleep at the switch, BUT my sympathy for the president’s supporters who were disgusted by it is limited, since they engaged in the same kind of bashing. Jack has pointed out that turnabout isn’t necessarily fair play, BUT I don’t believe I have to forcefully condemn this, whereas had the other side not done the same, I’d be more inclined to more forcefully condemn it.

  6. 1. I fail to see the extreme hideousness of this float.
    It is obviously a comment on the disgusting and highly un-American treatment of American veterans.
    Something Obama should be held accountable for – ANY day of the year.

    2. While we’re at it, let’s condemn and destroy all criticism of Obama in print on July 4, also. Because that’s not the right time for it.

    3. No criticism on any national holiday, either, how does that look?

    4. No criticism in August because Congress is out.

    5. No criticism in February – Black History month.

    This country and its Dear Leader make me SICK.

    • 1. It obviously isn’t “obvious.” I’m not too slow, and I didn’t see a VA connection until I read the comments of the designer. The face looks a little A-A. There’s no flag or military marking on the dummy.

      2. Your second comment is the rationalization known as “The Reverse Slippery Slope.” A celebration is a clear demarcation. But is the 4th the right day to attack the offic3. e of the Presidency, the flag, or any other U.S. icon? Not in my view.

      3-5. Ditto. The Fourth is sui generis. These are straw man arguments.

      • I don’t want to live in this world anymore…. I had to google “sui generis” because I hadn’t seen the term before, and the first return was a rock band.

        In reading your comments, I understand how 3-5 are the reverse slippery slope, but 2 actually seems kind of apt. Fin said “While we’re at it, let’s condemn and destroy all criticism of Obama in print on July 4, also. Because that’s not the right time for it.” and you said “But is the 4th the right day to attack the of the Presidency, the flag, or any other U.S. icon? Not in my view.” I don’t see the material difference between the statements, unless it’s a group/individual thing.

        But more than that, this must be an American thing, because I just don’t understand why a national holiday would or should give the administration a day off from criticism. 364 days a year it is ethical and fitting to criticise this government, because they really do deserve it, but we hang those ethics up for a day, because holiday? Maybe there’s an amount of ick factor here, but I don’t see criticism on the 4th of July as inherently unethical.

        • Humble, it is obvious you are not from here. Since it was we (and the French) who had to provide the blood and suffering in order to win our independence, the date has a special meaning for us, or at least, most of us. It is a day we celebrate our freedom, our freedoms, and the sacrifices made to win them for us. I think we can afford to skip the rhetoric for that one day.

        • 1. Sui generis is, like res ipsa loquitur, a Latin phrase that does better explaining a useful and common concept than any English phrase.
          2. There’s a material difference between the celebration of holiday and what it stands for, like a parade, and a newspaper or an op ed piece.

          • Using sui generis as a defense against analogies of this conduct on any other day to this conduct on the 4th of July, would need some explanation to avoid accusations of Special Pleading, if the reasons aren’t obvious.

            Independence Day is a celebration, of course of our statement to break away from England and follow the values of the Declaration. In which case, if that’s all its about, then poking fun at misbehaving authority figures (the bare minimum definition of tyrants) seems appropriate.

            But, barring Constitution Day ever becoming a celebrated holiday, the 4th vicariously adopts the Constitution as an item of celebration as well. The Constitution, which we believe to have legally described a government designed to protect the liberty and hope of the Declaration an to avoid similar abuses as experienced by the Founders, has that pesky Office of the President inside of it.

            That means, the President, in his abstract and ideal form – the protector of the Constitution and executor of constitutional laws – is a symbol of celebration on the 4th of July. To denigrate the sitting president on that day implies denigration of the system designed to perpetuate the independence being celebrated.

            But there’s the problem. If the sitting individual is actively and vocally in direct opposition to the Founding ideals meant to be celebrated, there is a paradox. The solution of which is:

            1) don’t even mention the offending individual and carry on celebrating the ideals as though the anti-ideal wasn’t even in office.

            2) start a revolution if you are that adamant about his usurpation of the Constitution and flagrant trampling of the Declaration.

            So yes, a call to not trash the presidency during 4th of July celebrations is protected ethically from analogies to a call to not trash the presidency in any other circumstance because the relationship of the Presidency to the Constitution and by extension the Declaration. Those who believe that is Special pleading and not sui generis because the sitting President doesn’t actually believe in the Constitution or Declaration then, you have your 2 options.

            • On the 4th, it’s the institutions and our government and respect for them that are at issue, not individual occupants. It’s not special pleading to designate something as a special case when it is, in fact, a special case, and that special quality is material to the issue at hand.

              Similarly, it is in bad taste and needlessly disrespectful for atheists to pick Christmas to mock Christianity, or Martin Luther King Day to do an Amos and Andy marathon on Sirius-XM.

    • And the right to be an asshole. That doesn’t mean that being an asshole is an appropriate or ethical way to celebrate the Fourth.
      I have no problem with the outhouse-library satirical analogy applied to Bush, Obama or anyone else, and there’s nothing racist about it. It’s in bad taste for an Independence Day Parade.

      • Your thoughts on giving a political speech rather than one simply celebrating American values on that day, then? Because that’s exactly what Biden did, I was there.

        • Is this more “Tit for Tat”? No, of course it’s low rent conduct, but this administration has now committed itself to be divisive and to promote distrust among Americans all year long, a divide and conquer strategy that is despicable always, and unforgivable on the one day we are supposed to celebrate being one people, one country, and Americans.

          • Nope, this was a slight change of subject. I came away from the Philly ceremonies unimpressed with either Biden or Mayor Nutter’s very political speeches and was wondering what the ethics are of holiday speeches. That said, it was a blue city in a state with a red governor and red senator who are both up for reelection this year.

    • Actual fact, Doug, we don’t celebrate our Constitution on that day. The Constitution wasn’t passed or ratified until some years later…if we celebrate any document on that date, it is the Declaration Of Independence.

  7. I’ve written about this incident, as well, and we generally but don’t totally agree.

    I’m intrigued by the discussion of racism. Certainly I agree that nothing in the events described qualifies as inherently racist… but I think the word “inherently” matters here. The fact that there is not an obvious racial motivation for what is clearly an intentionally offensive float, one which displays its creator’s “disgust,” does not mean that it is intrinsically devoid of such volition. Even the little boy who cried “wolf” was right once. Similarly, whereas there are those who reflexively scream “racism” at every criticism of the current President, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t expressions of anti-Obama sentiment which really are grounded in the fact that he has a little more melanin than you or I do.

    In this case, Ms. Kathurima and her daughter have experienced racism—or believe they have—and you say that you “don’t blame her” for perceiving it in this instance. Nor do I. That Mr. Remmich intended to insult the POTUS, I think goes without saying. Why, specifically, he set out to do so is an open question. Maybe it’s racial. Maybe it’s political. Maybe he knows his neighbors and pandered to their predilections. I certainly don’t know, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t, really, either.

    I grapple with a variation on this theme constantly in my professional work, especially in the area of communication theory as it applies to aesthetics. Oversimplified a little, the modernist/positivist view is that the sender of a message creates and encodes meaning, and the receiver’s job is to “find” the meaning through a process of decoding. The post-positivist view, however, is to argue that the sender catalyzes rather than creates meaning, that meaning is in fact created by the receiver of the message. To me, the two positions are equally valid.

    One of my standard approaches to this dilemma is to suggest to students that “somewhere in this room is someone who has had a major fight with a loved one because what one of you thought you said was not what the other thought he/she heard.” Moreover, whether the “blame” for a misinterpretation should be placed with the sender or the receiver is likely to be influenced in your mind not so much by philosophical or theoretical concerns as by which of those positions you happened to occupy on the occasion in question.

    We are left, then, with two significant questions, neither or which I am prepared to answer with confidence. 1). Is the meaning of a communication determined by the sender, the receiver, or by some presumably objective external agent? 2). At what point does a particular reaction pass from confirmation bias into, well, experience?

    • Great post, Rick, and a Comment of the Day. I share your views, I think. Here was what Ann Althouse said…

      “Yes, it’s a bad float, inappropriate for the 4th of July, but the only reason to pay any attention to this — what other bad floats appeared in local parades on the 4th? — is that the accusation of racism has been leveled.

      What is racial about an outhouse? Outhouses are associated with poverty, and while there are correlations between poverty and race, the outhouse as a marker of poverty is associated with poor, rural white people. I think of the original iconography of Mountain Dew:

      John Brichetto drew the first sketches of the original Mountain Dew bottle labels in 1948, depicting a character known as Willy the Hillbilly shooting at a revenuer fleeing an outhouse with a pig sitting in the corner. Below the illustration is the phrase “by Barney and Ollie”—as in FILLED by Barney and Ollie, a nod to the way a homemade jug of moonshine might be hand filled by the moonshiner. This labeling quirk was carried on until Pepsi Cola entered the picture many years later.

      I think of Li’l Abner, the cartoon character:

      A priceless rube, Abner was so gullible that he could be tricked by a small child. The loutish Abner typically had no visible means of support, but sometimes earned his livelihood as a “crescent cutter” for the Little Wonder privy company, (later changed to “mattress tester” for the Stunned Ox mattress company.)

      Now, let’s move on to the overalls. What does it mean that the figure of the President is dressed in overalls? The association is to rural poverty (or rural work), but is it racial?

      Thinking about race and overalls, I heard the line “You wear overalls!” What was that? Some recording from the 60s… Ah! I was thinking of Carla Thomas, singing with Otis Redding, in the 1967 song “Tramp.” At 0:37, you hear:

      You know what, Otis?
      What?
      You’re country.
      That’s all right.
      You’re straight from the Georgia woods.
      That’s good.
      You know what? You wear overalls, and big old brogan shoes, and you need a haircut, Tramp.

      And, again, as the song is fading out, at 2:42, Thomas harps on those overalls:

      You a tramp, Otis. You just a tramp.
      That’s all right.
      You wear overalls. You need a haircut, Baby. Cut off some of that hair off your head. You think you’re a lover?

      There is zero chance that Thomas’s problem with Redding is racial. She’s rejecting him because he’s country. His retort: That’s good.

      So I think the float used the iconography of poverty to express the point of view that Obama is utterly lacking in achievement worthy of a presidential library. Maybe you could build an argument that because so many black people have been poor, any depiction of a black person as poor is intended to associate him with black people in general, and that is enough to warrant an accusation of racism. But I think this float belongs in the innocuous category of traditional American disrespect for authority figures.”

  8. During the Bush years I saw some horrendous bumper stickers about President Bush. I did not like them, but we have fee speech here….every day of the year including July 4th.

  9. 4th of July is about freedom. Freedom to express yourself and be allowed to create any type of art or project of self expression. Now days we are taking away freedom of speech and self expression of its not politically correct. If someone had a float of the president being glorified then it would b ok even if others would b offended. Remmich…more power to you to have the guts to share your feelings about an issue and Shame on everyone for turning it into a race issue…by doing that it’s reverse racism because your taking away rights of those who don’t agree with the main stream. That’s bullying but no one will say that because remmich is white. By the way remmich is not the only one who thinks our country is in the crapper…does that make us racist too? How about if we’re not white but disagree with how this administration is not leading but trying to fit in? Am I allowed to say that or will they be on my door step too? We will see.

    • I think a principled argument could be made that a float glorifying a sitting president or even one glorifying a living former president may also be inappropriate (for obviously different reasons).

      We don’t worship our elected leaders. We certainly may honor this that are distant memories as the icons of the freedom we are celebrating, in which case it is the freedom we are celebrating and bravery of fighting for it.

      But a sitting President? I could see the parallels of worship in making a float of them.

      • Agreed good point. Having the freedom of expression is important as well. To be able to respectfully disagree. Groups and individuals should have the right to express themselves without bullying or backlash from the public or government.

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