Responding to Racism

Responding to Racism January 3, 2013

Someone I know shared this “joke” on Facebook. I left a comment expressing my disappointment that they had shared it, since it seemed to me to have racist overtones. Let me share it and see whether others get the same impression, before I say more.

Flying on Air Force One, Obama looked at Oprah, chuckled and said, ‘You know, I could throw a $1,000 bill out of the window right now and make somebody very happy.

Oprah shrugged her shoulders and replied, ‘I could throw ten $100 bills Out of the window and make ten people very happy.

Michelle added, ‘That being the case, I could throw one hundred $10 bills Out of the window and make a hundred people very happy..

Hearing their exchange, the pilot rolled his eyes and said to his co-pilot, “Such big-shots back there. I could throw all three of them out of the window and make 256 million people very happy.’

If you’re one of those 256 million, pass this on!!

*Note to Liberals, yes we know there are over 300 Million people in the USA, but the majority of America hates what is happening under this administration! So get over it!

Did you take it the same way I did? If I thought this were simply a political joke, I would not have batted an eyelid about it. Lowbrow jokes at politicians’ expense are universal across the board.

But it seems to me that, if this were a political joke, then it would have featured different characters. Unless the maker of the joke wants to have a Biden administration rather than an Obama one, then Biden ought to have been part of the joke – indeed, he would have to be, for it to make sense. Unless he gets tossed off the plane, in the story, then he becomes president. And I don’t think that is what the creator of the joke was hoping for.

Instead, the pilot of the plane proposes throwing three individuals out of the plane who would all be placed in the category of “African-Americans” (a categorization which I find problematic in and of itself).

Since I’ve made some people I care about rather upset by commenting on this on Facebook, I thought I would ask what others think.

Am I wrong to see this as a racist joke rather than a political one? The person who made it may or may not have been conscious of the racism inherent in it. But racism does not have to be conscious or intentional in order to be present.

When someone you know posts something like this on Facebook, do you leave a comment indicating your disappointment or concern, and if so, how do you go about it?


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  • Claude

    Odds are high that an anti-Obama chain joke has racist overtones, and Yes, no question about the one above. Though it’s pretty mild compared to much of the crap circulated by neo-confederates.

  • I should add that I am certain that the person I know who shared this is not a racist. But the fact that they did not notice that the joke is racist is equally worth mentioning, since it is easy to have blind spots regarding how others will perceive something differently than you might.

  • Craig Wright

    My wife and I both have the impression that a lot of the negative attitudes about Obama are racist. Roger Olson blogged on this very topic. I think that people don’t realize their racist tendencies, even though it is a soft racism.

  • Alex Harman

    Yup, this is both blatantly racist and extraordinarily stupid. I would comment, as you pointed out, that the inclusion of non-politician Oprah Winfrey instead of Vice President Biden makes it obviously racist rather than merely political. I would also add that since the majority of Americans who chose to vote in the recent election cast their ballots for Obama, the “Note to liberals” is obviously bullshit, making both the writer of the “joke” and those who choose to pass it on either disingenuous or idiots. Furthermore, I would point out that, at least in the case of any other President, even most of the people who voted against him would be shocked and saddened if he were assassinated, the more so if the First Lady was murdered along with him. I’d allow that in the present case it’s conceivable to me that a majority of those who voted against Obama are so vicious, hateful, delusional and unpatriotic that they might indeed celebrate if he and his wife were killed, but I don’t think the same can be said about the overwhelmingly popular Ms. Winfrey. And then I would un-friend the disgusting jackass who thought posting this was a good idea.

    • plutosdad

      At first I thought Oprah was there just because she likes to give away things. And then the 3rd person would have been someone who gives away more, like Howie Mandell. But of course the 3rd was Michelle Obama, which makes no sense.

      I remember during Bush’s presidency, some people did make jokes and hope Bush would be killed, and there was even a movie about it playing in art theaters. But of course, none of those people wished for his wife to die as well. I think that is the big difference here. This joke, unlike those other jokes about Bush, are not just about Obama’s policies or person, but against a whole class of people. And the 3 people picked happen to be black. Is that significant? I think it is, even if the original author did not intend it.

  • PeaceOnly

    I think you may be over-reacting. Of course it COULD be racist. But it’s entirely reasonable that Oprah was chosen as part of the triad because of her wealth and penchant for “giving away” lots of stuff — and her close relationship with the Obamas, and their generosity with other people’s money. This and a lot of people are tired of her (and their) political self-importance.

    Like I say, it might have been racially motivated. But you would really need to be in the head of the person who first drafted it to know for sure. The fact that your non-racist friend didn’t “SEE” it seems indicative that it is debatable. It isn’t overtly racist. You might be a little cynically quick to the trigger on this one.

    • Daniel Owens

      I think you are right in that the above interp probably was many peoples interp. I think the better claim would be that it can be fairly interp as having racist innuendo.

    • plutosdad

      Racism has nothing to do with intent. It is not about hate, but about effect and harm. If the person who wrote it was not racist at all, or even is black, it still does not mean the joke this not racist. The same goes for mysogyny, bigotry, or any sort of harm to minority groups. It does not require the actor to actually be prejudiced. That is why people with bigotted attitudes object to being called bigots, because they mistakenly think bigotry is about intent and attitudes, but that is an old form of racism that barely exists

      • plutosdad

        my first “attitudes” should be “beliefs”

      • PeaceOnly

        There’s pretty healthy debate on just how to define racism. Your take is one view – but it is one view and not, by any stretch of intellectual sense, THE definition of racism. In fact, there are smart folk who would argue that racism is very much connected to intent and to hate and not just an “old form” that barely exists (also very debatable). It’s easy enough to see from official definitions and encyclopedic discussions that the definition is by no means settled on your view. But you are entitled, of course, to adopt this definition.

        But if your point was that we cannot look to the mind of the joke-writer as at least a partial determinant, that’s fine. Then what or who determines that this joke is racist and on what grounds? Effect? Harm? Who defines and measures the effect and the harm? Is it subjective? Is there objective reference for such determination? Or is it the zeitgeist of the era reflecting a collective morality that we all just “agree” this or that is racist?

        Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason. ~Abraham Joshua Heschel

  • Daniel Owens

    I don’t think you are wrong to see it as racist (to me, most mid to far right politics is racist). One the other hand, I image that many people did not look deeply enough into the structure of the joke, settling for the easy political interp. I think, though, this question you pose really hits at the interp. problem communication creates. The problem is: Who gets to decide the meaning of an utterance the speaker or the recipient?

  • Susan Burns

    Yes it is racist. Other racist remarks that I hear often; call a spade a spade, pot calling the kettle black.

    • Belle Smith

      I am assuming your inclusion of the “pot calling the kettle black” is indicating the tendency of people to take something intrinsically non-racist and choosing to interpret it as such? In which case I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss underlying racist theme. There are many famous generous people closely associated with the Obama campaign. I may disagree with their political ideology but short of their contributions to the campaign I certainly wouldn’t consider them responsible for problems of the Obama campaign as the joke implies. If Oprah’s liberal views are the problem there are other more outspoken famous people closely associated with the Obama campaign–ones that don’t necessarily spend a great deal of resources on things like opening schools for African girls.

  • I see many people unfairly labeled racist simply because they disagree with the direction Obama is taking the country. However, it’s hard to consider that joke as anything but racist.

  • Michael Wilson

    I have to agree with those that don’t see the racism in the joke, Ophra is closely associated with Obama and many people saw her support for him as being instrumental to his beating Hillery in the Democratic primaries. It wouldn’yt be out of line to see her as more intergral to his cult of personality than Biden. It would be different if the third party were Michael Jordan or some other black person with no particulary tie to Obama.

  • LorenHaas

    Yes, this joke is racist and for all the reasons others have pointed out.

    A very sweet acquantance recently posted photo and text on Facebook about how Obama should not have been Time’s “Man of the Year”, but rather the teacher who stepped in front of the crazed killer at Sandy Hook School. My response was that “Obama haters are shameless”. Others responded that this was “not about Obama”. Right?
    A former pastor put a photo on his blog of a window display at a bookstore that had a number of books about Obama soon after the election in 2008. Prominent in the center was the face of a monkey on the cover of a book about monkeys. (every other book was about Obama) The pastor said it could be seen as racist, but he prefered to “take it to the next level” and see it as a commentary on evolution and “liberals”.

  • I don’t think “racist” and “political” are mutually exclusive terms. Obviously, there is some sort of political message here about “redistribution”. But as you say, it’s also telling that, of the three people to be thrown out of the plain for “the greatest good for the greatest number”, only ONE is a politician, while all are African American.So politics is apparently only a small part of this writer’s motivation. And of course, the writer is clearly innumerate.

  • I’ve gotta go with racist. If the joke was really intended to appeal to people who hate what the administration is doing, the third person would have been Biden or Hillary rather than Oprah.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    One of the things which I’ve come to realize is that people don’t think of things of racist and most certainly don’t think of themselves as racist because they have defined racism down to mean a belief that one race is better or worse than another due to inborn differences. As long as you are criticizing a person’s culture, you aren’t racist – you’re just making observations. Likewise comments made without regard for the history of race cannot be racist – they are just jokes or quips which mean no harm.

    I wrote a small ebook a while back with some of my thoughts on race and many white American’s inability to deal with race. In it I shared a story about a black man who became so irate that his white neighbor had said that his kids were climbing in trees like monkeys that he called the cops. I am married to a black man, so I’m hardly unaware when it comes to race, but I thought the man was being ridiculous. I was quite surprised when my husband told me that he probably wouldn’t have called the police, but he might has spit on the neighbor. Referring to a black person as a monkey for any reason was completely unacceptable. I still thought he was being ridiculous as the comment wasn’t about their race, but was about kids in trees. I’d say the same thing about white kids. Finally my husband had me call and ask for the opinion of the kindest, most mild mannered black man we know – the sort of guy who I can hardly imagine ever raising his voice. He was in total agreement with my husband. I protested that they were being unfair – that woman could be like me and may have no idea. This man’s response was that we SHOULD know. The comparison of black people to primates was so damaging and so harmful that it is reasonable to expect that people would be aware that even innocuous phrases like this woman had used would cause African Americans pain and upset. After thinking about it for a while it finally dawned on me that the issue is really that I don’t have the right to declare that people should just “get over” and “move on” from deep hurts and traumas just because I don’t see them as a problem anymore. IOW, it’s not about me or my intentions; it’s about the needs of the person who has experienced a great wrong such as racism.

    I think that a lot of white people really struggle with this. And I know from experience that people resist the idea, but it stems from a lack of empathy for those who have suffered in ways which are foreign to us. And also from some completely unrealistic ideas about the effects that racism has on actual people. I know that I have often been surprised by how much people internalize the negative messages about race which they receive. I always kind of assumed that since racism is self-evidently wrong to the point of being ridiculous, people would just shrug it off. Of course the reality is that growing up in a racist culture is a lot like growing up with a parent who follows you around telling you how worthless, dumb, lazy and ugly you are. It does get absorbed.

    • mikeH

      Excellent! We who are part of the dominant culture are quite blind to the hurts inflicted on others, not just involving race. It’s my hope and prayer that we can become empathetic to a point where we see through the eyes of others. How? Other than by the grace of God and paying attention, I don’t know.

  • Bob Patterson

    One of the commenter called this “soft racism”. Good description for this joke.

  • aar9n

    Yeah; including Oprah clearly makes the overtone of the joke “lets get rid of those popular dumb black people.

    Jokes like this expired for me in middle school.
    Sometimes I feel like It’s like I grew up in college and all my conservative friends like this regressed back to elementary school.

  • plutosdad

    I just read this article which was very helpful, and I think is good advice for how to point out what is wrong with some statements or jokes. Her point here is “racism” is such a charged word that it immediately puts people on the defensive. But if we instead focus on the harm our words cause others then we can reach out and change people via their own empathy, and that may work better than calling their words or ideas racist or bigoted.

  • Ian

    Yes, racist, and yes, definitely call it out on Facebook. Evil wins when good people do nothing.

    I recently called out something concerning the CT shooting, and the poster pulled it and said she’d reconsidered, and that she thought I was right on reflection.

    Sure its the only time that’s happened, but if I’d have not bothered, or hidden her, it wouldn’t have happened at all.

    So yes, all of us, don’t let this kind of stuff go unchallenged!

  • Kaz

    I suspect that the reason Biden wasn’t included is because his influence was somewhere between negligible and zero vis a vis voting choices, whereas many likely took Oprah’s lead when they went to the voting booth.

    With that said, the cartoon is certainly in bad taste, and if racism was involved even subliminally then it should be condemned on that basis, just as all reverse racism (i.e black against white), which is extremely common in the USA today, should be equally condemned.

    • Susan Burns

      While the VP on the ticket usually is not the deciding factor, the previous election with the McCain/Palin ticket was probably an exception in that he was in such poor health and she was so unqualified. Biden is certainly qualified but perhaps he was not included on Air Force One because the President and Vice President never fly together.

      • Kaz

        Hi Susan: I agree with you about Palin’s lack of experience. I remember the interview where she was asked if she really felt that the mere fact that Alaska is physically close to Russia (somewhat) qualifies as foreign policy experience, and rather than retract and restructure her point, she stuck to her guns and insisted that it was! That was one of the dumbest things I’d ever heard in my life. On the other hand, claiming that you recently ate at a restaurant that’s been closed for 20 years, or publicly stating that you wouldn’t let your children ride the subway at a time when folks were trying to mitigate panic, was pretty stupid too. I would feel a little uneasy if either one of them were to become President!

  • PorlockJunior

    One thing I’m sure of: it wasn’t a racist joke the first time I ever heard it. This was before Barack Obama was born, and the prominent Black people in the United States could be counted on one’s fingers, with plenty of fingers left over even after counting Ralph Bunche — who was not of the standing that school children would even know of him. As I recall, the central figure in the story then was Stalin. Or maybe Truman. It was a long, long time ago, and those two weren’t all that different in some circles in 1951.

    As to this version: sure, racist.

  • Jackie

    It is not subtle in its racism. Quite clearly a racist “joke” meant to thumb the nose at non-whites, who are not “real” americans.

  • Pseudonym

    Help me out here. I’m not American, so I’m ignorant about these things.

    What, exactly, does the “256 million people” figure refer to?

    • I wonder if it is the person’s inaccurate estimate of either the Caucasian or non-black population of the United States. It can’t be the number of Republicans or people who voted for Romney. It could also be a stab at the number of Christians in the United States. It is a disturbing element in the “joke” which I probably should have looked into further.

  • Thomas

    This is an old political joke if you Google (Bush throws 100 bill out the window) or (Bill Clinton throws 100 bill out the window) you will see that the names change. Al gore is usually with Clinton, Chaney or Jeb Bush is with pres Bush. The number of 256 million was the US population around 1993. As I have read in some of the responses, people who are overly sensitive about race can look for and can find racism any where.

    • It is indeed an old joke. My issue was with the substitution not of three more recent politicians, but three people who happen to have dark skin.

  • Dave Wodensson

    There is no racism in this joke. It has been told many times before with “white” people being the ones thrown from the plane. When the joke was told during the Bush and Clinton administrations should I have assumed that the pilot was black and therefore racist? If you look hard enough you will see racism no matter where you look. Give me a break.

    • If someone had taken this old political joke and, instead of substituting three off today’s politicians, they had substituted three people only one of whom was a politician but all of whom were Jewish, would the joke be anti-Semitic?

  • Nick Gotts

    Of course it’s racist, both in the sense of reinforcing existing racial inequalities, and in the narrower sense of being intended to do so by at least some of those telling it. The fact that structurally similar jokes can be told that are not racist is a complete irrelevance, and it’s a symptom of the deeply-ingrained racism in our cultures that anyone could think otherwise. This doesn’t mean the person who told it or those who excuse it are necessarily racist individuals, that is, people who habitually act in that way, or consciously prejudiced, although the background of years of race-hate aimed at the Obamas should have rung their alarm-bells.

  • David G.

    If you mean to only interpret the possibility that the pilots were white, or of any other descent than a black heritage then you may say this is racist. But than the problem still exists within your thoughts. This is a joke it is funny whether being factual or not, is no longer the question but just up to interpretatation. I only saw the joke as being humorous, and never considered it to be racially motivated or biased.

  • JC_Believer

    Here is my belated response. Stop the lie of racism around every corner for the sake of everyone especially the young black people caught up in it year after year. Check out the following versions of this joke… and that’s all it is just a joke. Laugh and go on with your lives!!

    Plenty of Fish blog – 03-26-2005 “George, Laura, and Jenna Bush are flying on Air Force One. George looks at Laura, chuckles and says, “You know, I could throw a thousand-dollar bill out the window right now and make someone very happy.”

    Laura shrugs her shoulders and says, “Well, I could throw ten $100 bills out the window and make ten people very happy.”

    Jenna says, “Of course then, I could throw one hundred $10 bills out the window and make one hundred people very happy.”

    The pilot rolls his eyes, looks at all of them and says to his co-pilot, “I could throw all of them out the window and make 56 million people very happy.”

    Daily Jokes – 11-07-2013 “Dick Chaney, Bush and Donald Rumsfeld are flying on Air Force One. Dick looks at Dubya, chuckles and says, “You know, I could throw a $100 bill out the window right now and make one person very happy.”

    Dubya shrugs his shoulders and says, “Well, I could throw ten $10 bills out the window and make 10 people very happy.”

    Donald Rumsfeld says, “Of course, I could throw a hundred $1 bills out the window and make a hundred people very happy.”

    The pilot looks at all of them and says, “I could throw all of you out the window and make the whole country happy.”

    3-10-2002 A Joke a Day – “Bill, Hillary and Vice President Gore were on their way back to Washington on Air Force One, when Bill said ” I’d like to drop a $100 bill out of the plane and make one person very happy”.
    Hillary thought for a moment then replied “I’d rather drop ten, $10 bills out and make ten people very happy”.
    To which Vice President Gore said ” I would drop a hundred $1 bills out and make a hundred people very happy”.

    The pilot then spoke up and said ” Why don’t all three of you jump out and make 250 million people very happy?”

    4- Jokes – No date – “Clinton, Dole, and Perot are on a long flight in Air Force One. Perot pulls out a $100 bill and says ‘I’m going to throw this $100 bill out and make someone down below happy.’

    Dole, not wanting to be outdone, says, ‘If that was my $100 bill, I would split it into 2 $50 bills and make two people down below happy.’

    Of course Clinton doesn’t want these two candidates to out do him, so he pipes in, ‘I would instead take 100 $1 bills and throw them out to make 100 people just a little happier.’

    At this point the pilot, who has overheard all this bragging and can’t stand it anymore, comes out and says, ‘I think I’ll throw all three of you out of this plane and make 250 million people happy.’