One of the rodeo clowns who worked the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association show on Saturday at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia wore a false face that caricatured President Barack Obama – and was threatened with a stampede by bulls as a joke at this taxpayer-funded public event produced by state government. (AP Photo/Jameson Hsieh)
The Political Eye
St. Louis, Mo–“Bring in the clowns” is a wisecrack not unknown to the political area, but this Saturday at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia they really did bring in the clowns – and one of the clowns was wearing a false face that caricatured President Barack Obama. According to many reports from press and citizens in attendance, the crowd was whipped into something of a frenzy over the prospect of the President Obama rodeo clown getting trampled to death by livestock.
It’s not farfetched to describe this event as a public simulation or parody of a presidential assassination by stampede. Many in the crowd, whether we want to admit it or not, enjoyed the spectacle immensely. Others left the fair in disgust. Some expressed deep distress with the people of Missouri and its state government. This was, after all, the Missouri State Fair, a taxpayer-supported public event branded with and administered by the executive branch of Missouri state government, led by Governor Jay Nixon, a white Democrat who often has been wary of President Obama, a Black Democrat who always polls poorly in Missouri and has never won the state (although he came close back in 2008).
African Americans, or anyone who knows anything about the history of public lynching as spectacle in American history, immediately rose in rage at the image of a vastly white audience getting pleasure out of the scenario of a white rodeo cowboy, wearing the rubber mask equivalent of blackface, getting trampled by an animal in public. And this wasn’t just any blackface, it was the blackface of the President of the United States, who could never run for governor of Missouri and win but who has twice won election to the highest office in the land by a landslide. It is not happenstance that this spectacle took place in Missouri where many have not shed their pro-rebel, Civil-War attitudes.
Presidents have been parodied before and will be parodied again, regardless of their race. But the state fair rodeo clown act made a specific reference to race. Even Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder, who carefully did not use the word “racist,” told the EYE that when another clown thumbed the protruding lips of the President Obama clown’s mask, that was a racial reference. The EYE understands that White presidents also have lips, but as the Lieutenant Governor – a White man from southeastern Missouri – recognizes, lips are a racial signifier in this country. That clearly was a public race joke at the expense of the sitting President that your Missouri state government paid for.
“The fact that public dollars went towards an event that openly encouraged the President of the United States to be trampled by a bull is troubling,” St. Louis City Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones writes. Shortly after learning about this event, I went on Twitter to voice my displeasure with the unprecedented level of disrespect leveled against the President, noting that, ‘Since November of 2008, racism has been masked under the guise of anti-Obama sentiment.’”
“To be clear, I don’t think everyone who opposes President Obama is a racist,” Jones writes. “However, I cannot help but notice the Missouri State Fair incident is a part of an unprecedented level of disrespect directed at a President who happens to be African-American.”
Jones knows there are policy agendas with powerful economic support that benefit from this hooliganism. She knows there are powerful economic interests that want lower taxes, less regulation, reduced pensions and increased states rights. But she wants to see these interests advanced without resorting to race-hate tactics.
“In 2013 we should be able to have a principled debate about the size and scope of government without disrespecting the President or relying on tired racial stereotypes,” Jones writes. “Until the time in which our society can disagree without being disagreeable, I will continue to call out racism when it is used to divide our great country.”
“The Missouri State Fair should be an environment void of political demonstrations, especially those that are racially charged,” state Rep. Kim Gardner writes.“The taxpayer-funded event should be welcoming for all Missourians without regard to race, political affiliation, gender, religion or socio-economic status. There is a fine but distinct line between satire and acts of bigotry.”
Gardner reads the spectacle in Sedalia in terms of history and symbolism. She sees evidence of the minstrel tradition of White people laughing at White people who are acting like fools in blackface – and the race/lips thing.
“As the portrayal, which could be equated to a minstrel show, progressed, the visual of the clown physically playing with the enlarged lips of his mask reeks of a stereotyped caricature of people of African ancestry,” Gardner writes. “At no time, is it acceptable for such deplorable behavior to be tolerated.”
The story moved fast across social and traditional media, no doubt amusing likeminded bigots in other states and making elected officials like Gardner fly flags of shame and disavowal.
“The events of the past weekend, which have catapulted Missouri into the nation’s headline news, are by no means are representative of the people of Missouri,” Gardner writes.
Gardner then reminds everyone listening, very much including Gov. Nixon, that she has a seat at the table where state money is diverted to this public spectacle.
“As a member of the Missouri House of Representatives, and particularly the Appropriations – Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, I assure you, the events that occurred in Sedalia do not reflect the Fair’s founding principle – to recognize and showcase Missouri’s agriculture industry – on which my support is predicated,” Gardner writes. “It is within this capacity in which I have been entrusted, that I will examine various legislative courses of actions to the full extent of authority to ensure that the culture and climate of the State Fair is one that is inclusive and not divisive, tolerant and not intolerant, and ultimately welcoming for all Missourians.”
Gardner also calls for the governor’s appointees to look deeper into how this happened and why the people who perpetrated it thought it was acceptable: “I also request that the Missouri State Fair Commission investigate the events that occurred during the rodeo Saturday.”
One clown down
The Missouri State Fair Commission met Monday morning in what must be thought of as an emergency session. Missouri State Fair Director Mark Wolfe reported on the event and on actions taken as a result of it, the commission said in a release that included “an apology for the unconscionable stunt.”
“The Commission said the terms of the MRCA’s contract to facilitate the rodeo at the Missouri State Fair are currently under review to determine additional actions that may be taken,” the release continued.
The MRCA is the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association. At press time, its website was blank on the pages where officers are said to be listed. There also is no contact information other than the email address email@example.com. So far, the President Obama clown is taking the fall. The commission unanimously ratified the fair director’s decision “to permanently ban this rodeo clown from ever participating or performing at the Missouri State Fair again.”
Probably sensing that a light hand-slap “bad clown!” wasn’t going to suffice as a full and fair accounting of what went wrong in that bull ring, the commission also said, “The MRCA must hold all those responsible for this offensive stunt accountable.”
The MRCA will also be required to jump through a diversity hoop before being allowed back into the fair grounds on the taxpayer nickel. “Before the Missouri State Fair considers contracting with this association again for future rodeos,” the commission reported, “they must provide evidence to the director of the Missouri State Fair that they have proof that all officials and subcontractors of the MRCA have successfully participated in sensitivity training.”
So there is one clown down, and “sensitivity training” required for all future clowns and their handlers. But is that the end of the matter? We have not heard much from Gov. Nixon, the state’s top elected official. As Nixon’s nemesis Peter Kinder points out, the state fair and its commission are functions of the executive branch of state government. This is Jay Nixon’s rodeo.