The Billings Outpost

Racist joke stirs debate

By ADRIAN JAWORT - For The Outpost

The internet meme was one of many racist images floating in cyberspace mocking President Barack Obama for his African-American roots.

Under a cardboard box that was held up by a stick with a string on it, the “snare” had a watermelon as bait. Underneath it a caption read: “BREAKING NEWS: The Secret Service just uncovered a plot to kidnap the president.”

However, this particular image was allegedly re-posted on the personal Facebook page of Jennifer Olsen last Friday. Ms. Olsen happens to be the chairwoman of the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee and a leader of the Yellowstone County Montana Shrugged Tea Party.

Although Ms. Olsen denied the saved screenshot image was taken from her Facebook page, the image has nonetheless rapidly spread across Montana political blogs on the internet, originating from whistleblower Nicole French’s Montanafesto blog before appearing on the popular liberal political insider mtcowgirl.com blog.

David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Michigan’s Ferris State University, said, “The mission of the Jim Crow Museum is straightforward: use items of intolerance to teach tolerance. We examine the historical patterns of race relations and the origins and consequences of racist depictions.”

He explained watermelon’s negative connotations towards blacks: “The association of Blacks with watermelons is, at its root, a mean-spirited attempt to insult and mock Blacks.”

Pilgrim cited Keith M. Woods from the Poynter Institute, who wrote that watermelon has been “a staple of racism’s diet” since the slavery plantation days.

“Over time,” wrote Mr. Woods, “the watermelon became a symbol of the broader denigration of black people. It became part of the image perpetuated by a white culture bent upon bolstering the myth of superiority by depicting the inferior race as lazy, simple-minded pickaninnies interested only in such mindless pleasures as a slice of sweet watermelon. Like all racial and ethnic stereotypes, this one’s destructive properties have, through the decades, stretched far beyond mere insult.”

French, an active Republican whose credentials include being the former elections director of the Yellowstone Young Republicans, said she felt compelled to make the image public in hopes Republicans would condemn racism in its own ranks.

“We want to rid the party of this sort of ugliness,” she said.

On her own Facebook page, Ms. Olsen said she wouldn’t comment about blog posts. But in an email, she denied complicity in posting the image, stating that the alleged posting was “absolutely not true.”

“The blog posting this about me is all fabricated,” Olsen wrote. “This is not the first time they have made up stories about me as writer, Nicole French, and I had a falling out a few years ago and since then she writes this nonsense.”

She added, “Liberals always try to take our focus away from real issues by doing things like this.”

“I don’t know how I’d ‘fabricate’ a screenshot,” French said in response, noting that someone would have had to hack Olsen’s Facebook account, or she would’ve had to doctor the image.

“I don’t have a personal vendetta,” she said. “If this was someone else posting this in the Central Committee executive board or a Democrat, I would’ve posted it as well.”

The incident recalls the fallout after U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull was accused of racism when he forwarded an email on his government account making light of President Obama’s mixed-race. Nor is this the first time a Tea Party affiliated member in a leadership position in Montana has come under scrutiny for a post made on Facebook.

In 2010 Montana’s Big Sky Tea Party Association leader Tim Ravndal was fired over an insensitive reference to Matthew Shepard, a homosexual who was beaten to death and then tied to a fence post. The remarks stemmed from a Facebook conversation about gay marriage.

One commenter had written, “I think fruits are decorative. Hang up where they can be seen and appreciated. Call Wyoming for display instructions.”

Ravndal replied, “Where can I get that Wyoming printed instruction manual?”

Big Sky Tea Party Chairman Jim Walker responded to the public outcry that followed in a statement:

“The discussion in that Facebook conversation is entirely outside the position of the Big Sky Tea Party. Even though Mr. Ravndal was having a personal conversation and made no reference to our group, we felt strongly that swift and decisive action was required as we cannot accept that sort of behavior from within our membership, let alone from an officer of the corporation.”

“We continually make it known that we will not tolerate bigoted dialog, behavior or messages at our functions, our meetings or within our ranks. If a person demonstrates bigotry relative to race, sex, ethnicity, etc. they are not welcome in our organization. The Tea Party movement is about standing up for individual freedom for everyone.”

While Judge Cebull and Ravndal were immediately apologetic when their online indiscretions were made public, Olsen supporters claimed the picture did not have racial implications after it was posted by French on the Yellowstone County Republicans Facebook page for their review. French said the posting was up for about an hour before she was subsequently banned from the group and it was taken down.

According to Ms. French’s screenshot of the page, Congressional Committeeman Brian Kenat wrote to French on the Facebook page, “You’re the one being racist by saying a watermelon under a box is. If you cut up a watermelon and stuck it under a box, you’d be more likely to trap a child.”

Joe Bailey, a vice chairman of the YCRCC, chastised French as a Democrat and drug dealer for her support of medical marijuana, claiming she was a “failure of a person” before writing, “I feel sorry for your daughter.”

When informed of Olsen’s alleged posting, former representative of House District 47 James Knox wrote to French that it was “a funny take on a picture. If you think that is racist then you got problems. Personally, it would have been better if it was over a gun.”

However, like French, not all Republicans are eager to claim the joke wasn’t racist. “It was completely unacceptable,” said Republican Josh Daniels, the precinct committeeman for House District 47A.

A.J. Otjen, who ran against Denny Rehberg in the last Senate primary, said such images do nothing to gain adherents. She said, “I think it’s indicative of the wrong direction of the party and the people who want to go in that direction.”

Mr. Daniels said, “I disagree with Obama on just about everything you can think of, but you just don’t bring in a person’s race. That doesn’t solve anything; it just brings hate towards you. (Olsen’s) supposed to be representing the party for the people of this county, and she failed us. We’re the party of Lincoln, who got rid of the slaves and did a lot for blacks and their civil rights when the Democrats were against it.”

Both Otjen and Daniels vouch for the integrity of French, doubting she’d fabricate such a Facebook posting regarding Olsen. When informed of Olsen’s denial, Mr. Daniels said, “Of course she said that, because she got caught.”

“I think for someone who is supposed to be the head of the GOP in this county, it’s just not something we stand for. There’s no way we’re going to be gaining younger voters and GOP members if they keep acting like this. All it does is run people away, and makes us look like rednecks.”

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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