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‘Who Is America?’ town accuses Sacha Baron Cohen of 'baiting' local residents into making racist comments

Arizonans were filmed objecting to mosque being built in their town and saying black people 'aren't welcome' 

Alex Horton
Thursday 26 July 2018 11:10 BST
Town accuses Sacha Baron Cohen of 'baiting' local residents into making racist comments

The city of Kingman, Arizona, 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 on Showtime's Who Is America?. A 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. As Cohen explains the plan in disguise 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. There are criticisms at Cohen for "baiting" locals. It 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.

Kingman said the segment led to a reckoning and has spurred efforts to be more racially and religiously inclusive.

"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 statement said, signed by "City of Kingman, Arizona."

It added: "While we've been making progress, the comments in the show, fairly or unfairly, show that we still have more work to do."

Georgia lawmaker Jason Spencer yells the N-word on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America

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. He has also duped former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former vice president Richard Cheney.

Kingman has a population of just under 30,000, according to a Census Bureau estimate last year. It is overwhelmingly white, with nearly 89 per cent identifying as white-only in a 2016 survey. The biggest minority population is Hispanic, a little more than a tenth of the population.

African Americans have long been a minority, totalling just over one per cent 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 the 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," the city said.

Kingman's city manager is planning a resolution to recognise National Hispanic Heritage Month, the statement says. The city also intends to hold an event for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January.

The city said "numerous" members of the focus group were not Kingman locals but did not say how officials determined that. Showtime, Mayor Monica Gates and a member of the city council did not immediately return requests for comment.

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 multi-ethnic.

The Masjid-E-Ibrahim mosque in the north-east part of town is conveniently located just off Route 66, a few steps away from the Walmart Supercentre and Cracker Barrel. If you pass the Indian restaurant on the highway, you have gone too far.

The Washington Post

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