What the Washington Post got wrong about the Obama rodeo clown and racism

Aug 16, 2013

The Missouri State Fair by night
The Missouri State Fair by night
Credit Missouri Division of Tourism

Thursday in the KBIA newsroom we had what I consider a valuable discussion. And it came out of a notoriously stupid act at the Missouri State Fair this week.

Then, Friday morning, I saw a headline for a Washington Post article that read, Obama rodeo clown incident illustrates nation’s continued racial divide.” I clicked on the article, hoping it might mirror the conversation we had the day before. Maybe I set myself up for disappointment. What I read, instead, was a article that reinforced racist - and regionalist - stereotypes.

It seems no one has been hesitant to weigh in on the controversial act at the Missouri State Fair last week. Within hours, politicians on both sides of the aisle turned to social media to express their disgust and disappointment before many Missourians even knew what actually happened. As one KBIA staff member said, “it seemed like a race to prove who was best at being politically correct.” Then, of course, quicker than you can say "high speed internet" the story went international.

But here was our question, which is one that many Missourians have tip-toed around this week while considering this incident.

Was this racist?

Let's point out that I'm a native Missourian. I’ve only been to the state fair twice, but I have probably been to a dozen or so rodeos in my life. Fortunately, we have a diverse newsroom at KBIA, where we can get input from people like me, but also from people from both coasts, and a reporter from overseas. When the rodeo clown incident happened, we talked about what we knew, how others felt about it, and what the implications were. It was a stimulating discussion, and I feel like we all learned a bit about ourselves, each other, and the place we live.

The Post apparently sent a reporter to Sedalia to cover this buzzy story. What they got was a story that read just like the ones you’ve already seen everywhere else, with some racist quotes sprinkled in. The Post's Philip Rucker apparently talked to a dozen people at the fair about the incident and “there was near universal agreement that the incident was all in good fun, and disapproval of the president crossed into a deep, personal hatred, often tinted in racial terms.”

To me, this story completely misses the point of the whole controversy. Part of what makes the incident so controversial and makes people feel icky is that it happened in the vacuum of a Missouri rodeo: a predominantly white audience (which many will assume are like-minded) enjoyed mocking a black President who did not get the Missouri vote two elections in a row.

Of course, with the internet, vacuums can open up very quickly, especially when something like this happens. Now, we've all witnessed this spectacle second-hand. The point of this story is how it made people outside of that vacuum feel: what it means in the real world. The Post could have taken the opportunity to examine what this means to the group of people who weren't laughing about this. Maybe those inside the (now busted) vacuum could take note. Instead, Rucker decided to go back into that vacuum for the Post's contribution to the advancement of this story, and find the people sucking the hardest. That, and we get one new quote from a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.

This article, and others like it, make Missouri nothing more than a sideshow. Come! See the people we found who are not like you! The new context we got from Rucker were interviews with a guy that sells offensive stickers at the fair and seems to have a serious issue with conspiracy theories and another man who said the President should expect to be made fun of. Then, we had three racist comments from senior-citizen-discount-eligible Missourians. You know, those near those generations that harbored sentiments all of us hope are on the way out. Those generations that do not only exist in Missouri. Thank goodness The Post sent Rucker here so those voices became part of the conversation.

So, what actually matters in this conversation? To me, this is simple. It’s those three factors: what we know about what happened, how different people felt about it, and what the implications are.

What we know about what happened

Fortunately, we do have two videos of the incident Saturday, posted to the Kansas City Star’s YouTube page. This tells us – at least a little bit – about what the scene was like.

We don’t know how much longer the act went on for, or what we missed before, after, and in between those videos. The State Fair Director has said they will continue to investigate the incident, and will determine whether more people need to be banned from the fair, as rodeo clown “Tuffy” Gessling has been. The announcer, Mark Ficken – who also happens to be a superintendent at Boonville R-1 Schools just west of Columbia – resigned his post as President of the Missouri Rodeo Cowboys Association and is in hot water in Boonville.

We hear the remarks Rucker details in his story:

“Obama, they’re coming for you this time.”

“He’s going to getcha, getcha, getcha.”

“Yahoo! We’re gonna smoke Obama.”

We hear some in the crowd laugh, cheer.

We have higher-quality images of the clown in the mask. Rucker writes it looks like the clown is “propped up like a straw man with the appearance that a broom stick was going up his backside.” The image below is the only one that seems to show that moment. Your interpretation welcome.

Credit Jameson Hsieh / AP

We have the eyewitness report from Perry Beam, a fairgoer whose original write up of the event seems to have been what brought the offensive incident to the attention of the media.

Beam’s account is the only first-hand account I have found that references one of the performers “bobbing the lips” of the clown’s mask. This is the account that many have referenced when calling this incident racist, and with good reason if it did happen. Unfortunately, this is not recorded on either of the videos, although there is a moment in the first video before “Obama” is introduced that one of the other performers touches the mask. It’s right at the beginning of the video. Again, your interpretation welcome.

Rucker also misrepresents the role of a rodeo clown in his story, referring to the incident as “letting the bull loose to charge at the clown with the Obama mask.” At least in the videos that are posted online, Rucker appears to have ignored the part where there was a person on the back of those bulls.

Rodeo clowns serve an important role, of course: you hear one announcer in a video call them “cowboy protection specialists.” They are crucial to the safety of the person trying to ride the bull, because once the rider is bucked off, they are in real danger of being stomped by the mammoth creatures. Rodeo clowns help distract and corral the bull to protect the (former) rider. The rodeo clowns also commonly serve as entertainment between the rides – there’s a lot of down time at rodeos, and the action, by design, only lasts for a few fleeting seconds. With the advent of wireless headset microphones, it’s also now common for the rodeo clown to become a color commentator during the shows as well. Rucker’s simplification of the incident misrepresents the role of the rodeo clown, or maybe he was just assuming that everyone reading the article had been to a rodeo and knows what a rodeo clown does.

Another valid point was brought up by a staff member here at KBIA during our conversation Thursday. Rodeo clowns, in their dress and manner of behavior, already rely on classism and stereotyping that many might find offensive in the first place.

How different people felt about it

Again, this is where The Post really could have "shown the light." Rucker was not talking to people involved in the incident. If it's worth coming all the way to Missouri to cover the motivations behind this tasteless act, why not foster a discussion with people who can discuss it intelligently and with sensitivity? Or, even worse, does Rucker think the twelve people he talked to at the fair represent the way most Missourians think?

As has been widely reported, the Missouri State Fair came out strong against the act immediately. Two days later, the fair director told KBIA on our talk show Intersection of the penalties it was enforcing, and the review of its policies to possibly include requiring sensitivity training for performers. We asked the Director Mark Wolfe if he thought it was a racist act.

“I believe it is a little bit of a racial issue, a racist issue when you do something like that. I’ve heard all the comments, and well you know if it had been this president or that president, but I feel like the level of disrespect is the same regardless. In my mind, we’re not gonna differentiate one way or another. It was an inappropriate act, an unconscionable stunt,” Wolfe said.

Many news outlets have reported the tweet from a twitter account for a “Tuffy Gessling” that said Wednesday, "Thank you to the folks that are in support of what I did, and to those I have offended I am sorry I never ment (sic) any harm."

As mentioned earlier, and widely reported, almost every Missouri politician that has been asked about the incident has expressed disappointment, disgust, outrage, or the like. Some went as far as calling it racist. Others toed the line. Some wanted the state to stop funding the fair, or for the Governor to cancel the annual Governor’s Ham Breakfast – an important political event. The latter didn’t happen, and it seems the former won’t either.

Of course these politicians can have an effect on forming public opinion, but what about the public? Of course, there has been widespread negative sentiment about the incident on that front as well. But as Rucker points out, some have risen to support Tuffy Gessling, many of them from outside the state. If you so dare, you can spend hours reading through comments on news stories if you see that as a good way to gather public opinion. Anonymity and flame wars, though, make this difficult to calculate, too. Sampling one place, say, the Missouri State Fair five days after the event, seems also to be too small of an effort.

So we try to use the information about “what we know about what happened” and basic logic to figure out the basics about how different people feel. Again, Missouri did not vote for President Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012. In 2008 Missouri lost its bellwether state status for just the second time in a century, and the state has gone redder ever since. Obama did especially poorly in rural areas. Many of the people at the rodeo Saturday were likely from rural areas. President Barack Obama is a democrat. Some people in that crowd likely would not like any democratic President. President Barack Obama is black. Some people in that crowd likely would not like any black President.

But of course it is not that simple. There are many other racist historical connotations this invokes – some have mentioned minstrel shows, Beam said it felt like a “Klan Rally.”

Does the motivation matter? In regard to the result, no. Tuffy Gessling may have been following our same basic logic above when he decided the crowd might think this was funny. Maybe he didn’t go as far as the last step, and maybe he did. Maybe it was only the last step. He, and any others that might have been involved, are the only people that know the motivation behind the act itself. So far, no one has admitted it was racism, and would we expect that kind of confession, anyway?

But the result, undoubtedly, was one with racist implications. A situation was created that stirs up emotions in people. Emotions with important historical connotations, and ones worth exploring. I hoped to get at least a sliver of that from the The Post article. Instead we were presented with the most inflammatory comments and characters Rucker could find on site. Yes, as one KBIA staffer quipped after reading the post article, "if you throw a rock at the Missouri state fair, you might hit a racist." But is that a surprise, based on the events over the weekend? Is that not true anywhere else? And - most importantly here - what are we hoping to accomplish by throwing these rocks, anyway?

Again, the important question going forward here is not whether rural white people at the rodeo or at the fair a few days later felt offended by what happened. It's whether they now understand why people who are not like them might have been justifiably offended.

Still, Fair Director Mark Wolfe, unprovoked, even went as far in his interview with KBIA as to scold anyone with those sentiments in the crowd - his customers.

“(I had) a lot of disappointment in the crowd, I’m sure not everyone in the crowd was cheering, but obviously there was some, quite a bit, of that going on and I’m disappointed to see that that happened,” Wolfe said.

What the implications are

"Tuffy" has been banned from the fair, but he's also becoming a sort of folk hero in some circles. Ficken and the Missouri Cowboy Rodeo Association’s implications aren’t completely clear yet. The Missouri State Fair has at least a black eye, and maybe more questions to answer later. Missouri politicians are politically correct.

As for the rest of us - it’s up to us. Is it valuable to stir up comments worthy of a Yahoo! message board, that reinforce regionalist stereotypes? Or do we foster valuable conversations with our peers, most importantly those that are not like us, to advance the dialogue? That seems the better way to take a look at the “nation’s continued racial divide.”