Until he made himself into an instant joke-line, Dean Grose was just another community good guy, a local businessman whose volunteer work helped vault him into the mayor’s office in the small Orange County suburb of Los Alamitos.
Last week, after sending out an e-mail depicting watermelons growing on the White House front lawn to a group of friends, including an African American businesswoman in town, Grose apologized, saying it was meant as a joke. And then he stepped down as mayor.
On Monday, as the storm of anger gained force and Grose was vilified and mocked as a racist on Internet forums, he threw in the towel and resigned from the City Council. He said he would not attend the evening’s council meeting, which was expected to be packed with protesters.
The swiftness of Grose’s fall was less surprising to some than the fact that the mayor was following in the fresh footprints of so many others who’d destroyed their reputations by mixing humor and race. Such stumbles, observers say, have taken on greater weight and carry heavier consequences since Barack Obama launched his presidential bid.
In October, a San Bernardino County Republican women’s club published an illustration of Obama surrounded by ribs, fried chicken and watermelon. After facing intense pressure from state GOP leaders who called the drawing racist, the club’s president resigned.
The New York Post was criticized for running a political cartoon last month that depicted a chimpanzee shot by a police officer while another says, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”
In Los Alamitos, an upscale, mostly white community known for its good schools and tidy neighborhoods, Grose apologized to city officials, saying in a written statement that the e-mail was a “mistake” and in “poor taste.” He told the Associated Press he was unaware of the racial stereotype that black people like watermelon, a claim some said was unbelievable.
Cartoons and messages perceived to be racially insensitive are nothing new but have gained more scrutiny since Obama’s election, said Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at USC.
“It’s not as though this small-time mayor is the first person to send a racially offensive e-mail. It’s the fact the issue of race is now in our face, so you can’t get away with those things like in the past when people might be able to sweep them under the rug,” Boyd said. “Not only are you dissing African Americans, you’re dissing the president.”
After Grose’s e-mail was made public, Los Alamitos City Hall received hundreds of calls, many critical, but also some supportive of Grose. Boyd said it was troubling that some had come to Grose’s defense.
“I think there’s a lot of people in our society who think that racially insensitive jokes are not a big deal, that the person offended is wrong to be offended, that the people are too sensitive or too politically correct,” Boyd said. “In the past, people have been able to demonize people that object to such statements. That’s not going to happen anymore.”
Mark Sawyer, director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics, said those who want to create political humor about Obama’s administration can stumble in the minefield of racial insensitivity.
“Race becomes an obvious method to make fun, but that is deeply problematic,” Sawyer said. “The point is that if we can’t point to these kinds of things and say it’s wrong or offensive, we cannot have a real honest dialogue about these things like race.”
Grose originally said he would step down as mayor of the town of about 12,000, just east of Long Beach, but vowed to retain his City Council seat, to which he was elected in 2006. He told the Associated Press that he believed “the matter’s closed.” But on Monday, he decided to leave office altogether and issued a one-sentence resignation letter, without further apology.
Local activists said the recent missteps of public officials show that though the country elected its first black president, the issue of race is still present.
“Despite the election of President Barack Obama -- and admittedly the country has gone a long way -- we have a lot further to go to achieve real racial diversity and sensitivity,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. “Unfortunately, there is a wide segment in the public, and more tragically, public officials who are elected, that still don’t get it about race and diversity. They are still operating in a time warp.”
Hutchinson sent a letter to the Los Alamitos City Council last week asking that the city engage in diversity and sensitivity training so that a similar incident does not occur.