How to Tell If Your Empty Chair Lawn Display Is Racist: Does It Have a Noose?

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We live in a changing society with evolving cultural norms. Some things that were once acceptable in polite company are now considered racist — my own grandparents, proud integrationists in 1950s Georgia, also argued at one Thanksgiving dinner that black people were just genetically predetermined to be worse at sports compared to white people. (Racist stereotypes have evolved, too.) Today, some conservatives complain that you can't attack President Obama without being called racist. That might have something to do with confusion over what is racist. The Atlantic Wire would like to help with one touchy subject area: empty chair lawn decorations. These references to Clint Eastwood's speech at the Republican National Convention have gotten a lot of attention on the local news. While some say the empty chair itself is racist — erasing the black American experience — we'll start with the most charitable view, that they are meant as a display of the nonracial insult "the empty suit." (Doonesbury portrayed George W. Bush as an asterisk.) But there is no charitable way to interpret empty chair displays when they involve a noose. And yet there is a constant theme among chair lynchers — they say they had no idea they were being racist, they just needed a good, secure rope. If you need help not being racist, print this out on your way to the hardware store when picking up supplies for your own empty chair display.


Example: This chair is lynched with a bayonet, rifle, and golf club in Rochester, Minnesota, as reported by the Rochester Post-Bulletin on October 31 and flagged by Think Progress. "I'm not sure why everyone is up in arms about it," Laura Mulholland, co-owner of the chair with her husband Kevin, told the local paper. 

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Tip: Guys, it's racist because you're saying the black president should be lynched. 








Example: "Oh dear," Kathryn Maxwell of Camas, Washington said when asked about her husband's yard display by The Columbian on October 3."The reason we hung it up was because people kept stealing it. … We just have to take extra precautions." The chair was originally on the ground, she said.

Tip: Secure your empty chair in a way that does not reference mobs of white people mutilating the bodies of black men for crimes they in most cases did not commit.









Example: "No it has no other meaning," Bud Johnson of Austin, Texas, told KEYE-TV when asked if his hung chair had a racial connotation. "I’m not a racist, I don’t dislike any race," Johnson told a reporter as he cut down his chair. "It’s not a lynch." He only hung it up "because I like to cut my grass."

Tip: Just keep the chair on the ground and move it when it's time to mow.



Example: "They’re making more out of it than it is," Dennis Jacobsen of Loveland, Colorado said. Is the display meant to remind people of hate crimes? "It’s not intended. There’s no reason to do that," he told CBS4 in Denver on September 23.

Tip: Again, just try to avoid visual representations of black people that might look to most other Americans like references to an era when racially-motivated murder was acceptable.





Not racist:

Example: Timothy J. Hammons posted this photo on his blog, though I'm not sure where it came from. It's a reference to the conservative idea that Obama is a fraud, unable to give those soaring speeches without a telepromter.

Tip: Make jokes about Obama's brains, not his skin color.





Example: The blog Legal Insurrection posted this empty chair display. The sign quotes Clint Eastwood saying, "We own this country... Politicians are employees of ours... And when somebody does not do the job, we’ve got to let them go."

Tip: This is a reference to Obama's job performance.








Example: The blog Can You Be a Part Of My Life posted this photo on "Empty Chair Day."

Tip: Again, this one's just a joke about Obama being an empty suit.









Really, really racist:

Example: In Morgan Hill, California, Blake la Beck confirmed to KTVU that he put an empty chair on top of a fence post by a road. That was perhaps too subtle, so la Beck added a noose and two watermelons to the chair, and if that was too subtle, he added a sign made to look like a teleprompter that said "Go back to Kenya."

Tip: If your empty chair display is just a collection of racist jokes, you guessed it, it's racist. But you probably didn't need us to tell you that.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.