Has the Florida Lottery lost its mind?
In the past year alone we’ve seen the political careers of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nearly derailed by the resurfacing of images of them in blackface years ago. The images were old, but not that old: 2001 and 1990 for Trudeau, 1984 for Northam, 1968 for Norment. They could not claim ignorance at the time, not these supposedly brilliant college kids, though stupidity and latent racism is something else. All three apologized and called their behavior insensitive and abhorrent.
What’s the Florida Lottery’s excuse?
The state lottery, which helps fund district education budgets, just issued a 30-second television spot that replicates an equally bigoted stereotype–the African-American with oversized lips.
A black patient is sitting alone in a dentist’s chair. His mouth is fitted with a see-through plastic cheek retractor. The devices are used by dentists for certain procedures. They don’t leave your face in the most flattering posture. In this case the man appears with all his teeth and gums overexposed, his lips almost obscenely retracted and forcibly enlarged against the rim of the nearly invisible device.
No doubt the devices are used on people of all races. But the Florida Lottery made a choice here. Aside from the fact that it could have scratched up anyone of a million different themes and settings for its ad, it had six major U.S.-Census-recognized ethnic groups to choose from. It chose a black man. In Florida no less, a state with its own sordid history of minstrelsy and not-too distant affections for Jim Crow. (The creator of the original Jim Crow was Thomas Rice, the 19th century playwright and performer who whose song, “Jump Jim Crow,” he performed in blackface and whose score was illustrated with the stereotypically big-lipped black man.)
So it’s hard to imagine a more intentional–a more cynical–play on an old stereotype, hiding behind the supposed humor of a lottery commercial. But even the humor is offensive.
A dental assistant–a white woman, of course–wheels into the frame. “So, you’re here for a teeth-whitening?”
“I am,” the patient answers as best he can.
“We’re going to make them 100 times whiter,” she says. If you miss the racial, or rather racist, allusion, I don’t know if you’re a more indulgent or better person than I, or just blind. The patient doesn’t seem pleased by the “100 times” as much as terrified. I would be too if any part of me was made even two times whiter.
“You think that’s exciting,” the woman says, clearly misreading her patient, “check out these new X-multiplier scratch-offs from the Florida lottery.”
Never mind the entirely moronic segue from teeth to scratch-offs (maybe the producer was attempting a clever allusion to scratching off plaque), but that’s advertising. The camera pans over to a man on the other side of the patient, also white, furiously scratching one of those cards and flashing a grin at the patient, who then goes into full minstrelsy mode: “Am I in a commercial?”
“Yup,” the woman says. At that point both white characters are finding the situation hilarious, just as I’m sure the Florida Lottery finds this 30-spot brilliantly entertaining. The patient’s final line is uttered through his ridiculous handicap: “What shall I do?,” thus demeaning him even more to the manipulated, manipulable object he’s been made out to be. Helen Bannerman could’ve slipped him into “Little Black Sambo Goes to the Dentist” at that point. Add to that the other obvious if unspoken stereotype–the Florida Lottery targeting minorities, as lotteries always do, and the clip is a concentrated bit of frame-by-frame exploitation.
And no one in an entire government agency caught this before it went on air?
During the newspaper strike of 1962-63 in New York City, when The New York Times took to reading a lot of its stories on WQXR, the radio station it owned, Turner Catledge, its managing editor no less, suggested that a column James Reston had written about southern blacks be read in Negro dialect. No one found the suggestion remarkable. That was around the time when Bing Crosby was still going around in blackface, not long after Amos and Andy was cancelled and not too long before Howard Cosell could still unload the occasional racial slur on the air. Catledge’s idea, essentially blackface vocalized, was about to air when the station’s founder and president (Elliott Sanger, who played a big hand in the FM revolution) caught on. He told Catledge it was “unadvisable.” Catledge dropped the plan, and The Times–whose earlier pages are smeared with racist stereotypes–was saved from what would have been one of its more embarrassing misjudgments.
Somehow, no one up the chain of the Florida Lottery’s command thought its latest ad spot unadvisable, and Randall Hunt, its former director (who is black) resigned almost two weeks ago after eight weeks on the job. Somebody, scratch that ad.