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Williams’ Hitler gaffe on Fox News ignites predicament for ESPN

As a fortysomething black man in America and a writer who has spent many years dissecting the combustible intersection of race and media in society, I felt a pang of remorse for the Worldwide Leader earlier this week.

Courtesy of a barely-coherent rant by country singer Hank Williams Jr. on the “Fox and Friends” show Monday morning, ESPN had to negotiate territory usually reserved for people of color making their way in a mostly white world:

They had to figure out if somebody was acting as a racist.

Williams didn’t make it easy. He compared President Obama and House speaker John Boehner’s much discussed “golf summit” to history’s most hated killer of Jewish people spending an afternoon with the prime minister of Israel.

“You remember the golf game they had?” Williams asked the panel on “Fox and Friends,” in an odd digression to a question about which GOP presidential candidate he liked. “That was the worst political mistake ever…That’s be like Hitler playin’ golf with Netanyahu…the country this shape is in, I mean, the shape this country’s in? Not hardly.”

Williams went on to call Obama and Biden “the enemy” and the Three Stooges, perplexing Fox’s perpetually smiling hosts and providing fodder for Internet humorists worldwide.

Given that the comments came on the morning before a widely-anticipated “Monday Night Football” telecast featuring the Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers – the first time a home game was broadcast on local TV in 21 months, thanks to the NFL’s boneheaded blackout rules – ESPN benched Williams’ opening theme for a night.

And now begins the real discussion. Was what Williams’ said really so offensive that he deserved to be kicked off the show? And if it was, should he be kicked off the program for good?

Fans have stuck up for Williams, saying he was simply trying to compare two extreme opposites. The singer sent a statement to the gossip web site, saying he was “misunderstood.”

He continued: “My analogy was extreme – but it was to make a point. I was simply trying to explain how stupid it seemed to me – how ludicrous that pairing was. They’re polar opposites and it made no sense. They don’t see eye-to-eye and never will. I have always respected the office of the President.”

Of course, this is from a singer who once flipped two middle fingers at an audience after pronouncing Obama a bad president.

Whenever issues like this come up, I encourage people to look at history. For example, I advocated pressing shock jock Don Imus to leave the morning slot at MSNBC back in 2007, but not just because he had just said something racially insulting about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, calling them “nappy headed hos.”

Instead, I criticized Imus for a long history of racially offensive jokes and comedy bits, ranging from joking that The New York Times was elevating a cleaning lady to cover the White House when black reporter Gwen Ifill got a promotion, to constantly comparing African American athletes to animals on his show.

But looking at Williams’ history doesn’t make things much clearer.

As an entertainer, he’s often held up a pro-Southern, pro-working class attitude which dances on the line between Southern pride and nostalgia for a time when prejudice and segregation were the law of the land.

Often listed as a member of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, Williams took flack for one song in particular, called “If the South Would’ve Won.”

The tune imagines an idyllic life where Elvis’ death is a national holiday and he’s running for president of the Southern states. But the Civil War was a conflict fought over slavery; the biggest consequence of a Confederate victory probably would have been a continuation of the biggest plague to affect black people in the nation’s history.

Is that what he really meant to say?

Williams also seems to have an intensely emotional opposition to President Obama, who also happens to be the country’s first non-white chief executive.

In 2008, he said, before singing the national anthem, he was about to start a song “Mr. Obama’s not real crazy about.” Williams has also criticized the president for supporting gun control legislation in the past that would have outlawed his father’s and grandfather’s hunting rifles. The president has often said he supports individual gun ownership rights and hasn’t pressed for major gun control legislation in office.

Still, Obama was caught on tape during the presidential campaign in 2008 saying when people in small towns in Pennsylvania “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion.” That remark prompted Williams to record an ad for the then-Democratic candidate’s Republican rival, John McCain.

In the end, I think the singer seems to be trying, in a clumsy way, to speak to two audiences at once. He knows how to galvanize his traditional audience with appeals to Southern culture and traditional conservative values.

But he’s also willing to use imagery and messages that people with less mainstream ideas about race and society might find appealing, placing his face on the Confederate flag and pushing the idea that a country where the pro-slavery side won the Civil War might be a better country than we have now.

Which is why Williams’ comments put the Worldwide Leader in a tough spot. About 67 percent of players in the National Football League are African American; football telecasts on network TV were four of the top ten shows in black households the week of Sept. 19, according to The Nielsen Company.

The only real question left for ESPN, as all of this percolates in the culture, is whether they want to keep associating the brand of Monday Night Football with a performer like Williams.

I guess we’ll learn the answer to that one, come Monday night.

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