No single issue or subject is more volatile then a discussion of racism in America. I experienced this last month in the backlash to the backlash of clown’s act at a Missouri fair firsthand on Facebook.
The quote above, “If you keep whining about racism it will never go away,” was made along with several comments by people who felt the rodeo clown Tuffy Gessling had every right to wear a mask of President Obama’s face, act “clownish,” and then ask the audience if they would like to see President Obama run over by a bull. Because Mr Gessling was fired after this incident and banned from performing, this has stoked the ire of many who don’t like President Obama for a variety of reasons and feel he should be fair game when it comes to ridicule, the more disparaging the better.
In no uncertain language my call on Facebook that this clown’s act was racist became a lightning rod for those who feel racism is a long-ago page turned in our country’s history. Left, Right, and Center, most agree that a rational and sincere discussion about racism in America is almost impossible, and for those who do not believe there really isn’t racism, unnecessary. Even when faced with issues and events on a daily basis from the killing of Trayvon Martin to voter suppression aimed at minorities, many whites (and some minorities) reject the notion that racism plays any part in what happens today. And they are also unwilling or unable to look back at our history and see that racism today is still an extension of what happened yesterday.
For myself, a “child” of the ’60s who grew up in a time where the swirling winds of civil rights marches by African Americans for voting rights was still occurring a full 100 years after the Civil War, the idea that racism did not have modern-day implications was sublime. Did the people with whom I traded discourse about Tuffy Gessling on Facebook not know (or chose to ignore) the American story that included slavery, Jim Crow laws, and lynchings that affected generations of black men, women, and children?
From a book I was reading at the time (Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, by Brenda Wineapple), another irony came to mind. Tuffy Gessling performed his clown act in the state of Missouri, a state whose very inception was born on the backs of African Americans whose human rights were bartered away. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was a congressional agreement that regulated the extension of slavery in the United States for the next 30 years. Under the agreement the territory of Missouri was admitted as a slave state, the territory of Maine was admitted as a free state, and the boundaries of slavery were limited to the same latitude as the southern boundary of Missouri: 36° 30′ north latitude.
Fewer then 200 years later, despite this nation’s progress in racial equality, portions of states are still used as bargaining chips in gerrymandering districts to help negate minority voting.
Denial of racism in America today by both whites and some black Americans still holds this country back from both realizing its potential as a nation and healing from the wounds of recent history. White commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck use race innuendo to mobilize a basically undereducated white audience to reject President Obama and his policies with unsupported birther hyperbole, and black Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former congressmember Allen West have compared affirmative action to slavery, a false equivalency that borders on denying the Holocaust of WWII.
It leaves the minds of the sensible and compassionate swaying with disbelief and disillusionment when talk of a post-racial America occurred after the first black president was elected in 2008.
We are left with the fact that we cannot kid ourselves anymore about race relations in America. There will always be some measure of anti-black, anti-white, anti-Hispanic feeling in our country. Some might say whining about it will keep it from going away while others will find more solid ground from historic precedent that only through vigilance and finding one’s voice will we be able to advance the cause of equality for all people.
I do not posses X-ray vision (as some supporters of Tuffy Gessling seem to think they have) in looking into a heart of a clown and deciding if he was trying to incite some of our worse instincts or just trying to be funny.
But for the children who witnessed his act and for all Americans to degrade a race of people, even if unintentional, is no laughing matter.
Jeffrey R. Moualim lives in Santa Ynez. He is treasurer of the Committee of Ten Thousand, a national grassroots advocacy organization for people with hemophilia, HIV, and HCV, based n Washington, D.C., and Santa Barbara.