Comment of the Day: “The Obama Outhouse Float: Not Racist, Just Wrong”

Obama float

Rick Jones, a drama professor, deep thinker and superb writer, weighed in on the controversy over the tasteless Independence Day float in Norfolk, Nebraska. (As an aside: did my trip to Nebraska last week unleash something in the Ethics Cosmos? First this story, then the Nebraska judge telling the Supremes to “stfu”?) Rick courageously wades into the messy and contentious area, often discussed here, of racial motivations behind criticism of Barack Obama. Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, The Obama Outhouse Float: Not Racist, Just Wrong:

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?

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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. Continue reading