A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about racism as a factor working against President Obama in my home state of Arkansas. The story generated quite a response, much of it angrily claiming I found only what I was looking for.
But you know, Arkansans, it isn’t that hard to see. And did you hear the one about the tea party rally in Baxter County, where a joke delivered in black dialect, about lazy black welfare recipients, had the crowd in stitches?
Last weekend, the annual Ozark Tea Party rally was held in Mountain Home, Ark., on the Baxter County Fairgrounds. According to local news reports, more than 500 people attended the event, where Ozark Tea Party board member Inge Marler told the joke, captured on audio, about a black child asking his mother the definition of democracy.
Marler: “Well, son, that be when white folks work every day so us po’ folks can get all our benefits. But mama, don’t the white folk get mad about that? They sho do, son. They sho do. And that’s called racism.”
The crowd erupted in laughter. And as the local newspaper wrote, “There were no objections to the ‘joke’ from the floor and no one spoke with disapproval or objection to Marler’s comment except those pursued for comment by the Baxter Bulletin.”
Oh Baxter Bulletin, where do you get this stuff?
And what does it tell you that in 2012, a white person can tell a joke about welfare in a “black” dialect at a political event and not one person stands up and calls her out on it right then and there?
Marler later told the paper that she regretted the joke. The group’s founder also apologized. Everyone always regrets such things after heat is applied.
My original story on this subject came on the heels of Obama losing 36 counties in the state’s Democratic primary elections to an unknown Tennessee lawyer named John Wolfe.
Many readers said race had nothing to do with that result: “I doubt the percentage of ‘racist’ citizens is any higher in Arkansas than in D.C. or Chicago or Seattle,” one person wrote. “There are plenty of reasons to be found in Obama's performance in office to justify not voting for him.”
True, racism exists everywhere, and yes, there are plenty of other reasons to oppose him.
But Arkansas, like many Southern states, has a complex history of racial problems that goes far beyond the Central High crisis of 1957.
For decades, communities, including many in northwest Arkansas, were sundown towns — where blacks were not welcome after sunset. In some towns, black mules were painted on barns to signal that black travelers should not stop there. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, “Harrison remained a sundown town at least until 2002.” Yes, as in 10 years ago.
Various studies show that in Little Rock even as late as the year 2000, the city’s neighborhoods were drastically more segregated than 100 years earlier. That’s true in many Arkansas counties.
Often, people will tell me a racist joke and assume that I am fine with it. After all, I am a Southern white woman. It’s only when I call them on it that they seem aghast and usually, but not always, apologize. What happens when we pretend this doesn’t happen? We get lots more funny stories like the one told in Baxter County — and occasionally, it’s on tape.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker