The city of Kingman, Ariz., wants you to know about its dazzling history along Route 66, the weekly farmers market with local produce and that its residents are not uniformly racist.
Kingman became the latest target for Sacha Baron Cohen’s social satire program “Who Is America?” on Showtime after a Sunday segment featured Cohen, posing as a member of a development firm, bringing together locals to comment on a multimillion-dollar project.
The gathering of at least 21 quickly learn the proposal: the world’s largest mosque outside the Middle East, Cohen, in disguise, explains at the front of the room. The mood sours. One man links the word “mosque” to terrorism. The mosque will bring problems, another explains. One man says black people aren’t welcome in town.
City officials were unhappy about the depiction and public outcry, of course, releasing a Facebook statement you might expect. There are criticisms of Cohen for “baiting” locals. The statement takes a shot at the show’s reach in a Trumpian insult of “very low ratings.” And every town has intolerant people, the city explains.
But, then, it takes a turn. The city is going to lean into the issue of racial and religious tolerance, it said.
“But shrugging this off is not going to be us. We’re going to use this opportunity to keep moving our community forward with the help of many community stakeholders including the Kingman Interfaith Council,” the Tuesday statement said. “And while we’ve been making progress, the comments in the show, fairly or unfairly, show that we still have more work to do.”
Kingman Mayor Monica Gates said the segment was absurd and deceptive in its portrayal of the city she has called home for more than 30 years.
“I didn’t recognize a soul in that video,” she told The Washington Post on Wednesday. But, she said, the episode has spurred the city to prioritize ongoing diversity efforts.
The urgent focus on tolerance is giving the city a chance to avoid the type of lingering condemnation it suffered two decades ago, Gates said.
Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh briefly lived in Kingman before he and his accomplices killed 168 people at a federal building in 1995.
FBI agents scoured the town. Businesses suffered. Locals were dismayed at media accounts portraying them as gun-toting, crazed militia types, the Chicago Tribune reported two months after the bombing.
“The city never responded appropriately. We truly never got rid of the black eye,” Gates said.
Kingman has the chance to be proactive this time, she said.
Cohen’s brand of uncomfortable social criticism has already led to a Georgia state representative’s resignation after he dropped his pants and yelled obscenities on the show. Cohen has also duped former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former vice president Richard B. Cheney for his show.
Kingman, a northwestern outpost between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, has a population of about 30,000 in the city limits, Gates said. It is overwhelmingly white, with nearly 89 percent identifying as white-only in a 2016 census survey. The biggest minority population is Hispanic, somewhere in the area of 11 percent, Gates said.
African Americans have long been a minority, totaling just over 1 percent now. There were 289 people who identified as black-only eight years ago. That number was 36 in 1990.
In one of the most charged moments of the segment, the group forcefully pushes back against the idea of the mosque. Kingman cannot accept that, a man explains, because town is “lucky to have black people in it.”
Cohen responds, “Of course you’re lucky to have black people; they add a lot to society.”
The man tries to explain himself, and another man cuts Cohen off: “He’s saying there are black people in Kingman who aren’t welcome, either. But we tolerate them.”
The city addressed the tension in its statement. “We do have African-Americans applying for leadership positions with the city,” it said.
But when asked about the city’s hiring efforts and makeup of senior leaders in the administration, Gates conceded that line “might have been an overreach.”
To the best of Gates’s knowledge, she said, the top senior leaders in the city are white — including herself, the vice mayor, the five city council members, the city manager, the chief of police and his senior staff.
Still, Kingman’s city manager is planning a resolution to recognize National Hispanic Heritage Month, the statement says. The city also intends to hold an event for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January. Planned initiatives like this were already in the works, Gates said, but hadn’t been a main priority in the past, given the city’s size.
But now Kingman is growing, and those recognitions must scale up, too, she said.
Gates also chastised the premise of the segment and questioned whether the people were from Kingman. People in the community suggested to city officials that not everyone looked familiar, she said.
One man in the segment said something like “Kingmaners” to describe locals. That caught Gates’s attention — citizens typically refer to themselves as “Kingmanites,” she said. Other moments, like outside shots and the building itself, were not recognizable, she said.
Showtime declined to comment on how or why it chose Kingman for the episode, or whether everyone in the segment was a Kingmanite. Gates said the network didn’t contact or coordinate with the city beforehand.
Still, even if the group was made up of out-of-towners, the perception of racism broke the heart of a councilwoman, the statement read.
After all, Kingman already has a place for local Muslims to worship, the city noted, in a sign the community has already become more multiethnic.
The Masjid-E-Ibrahim mosque in the northeast part of town is conveniently located just off Route 66, a few steps away from the Walmart Supercenter and Cracker Barrel. If you pass the Indian restaurant on the highway, you have gone too far.