Racism on Display at the 2022 Lane County Fair
Editor’s note: This article includes explicit descriptions of historical carnival games.
The Lane County Fair is a go-to event here in Eugene. It was first established in 1859 — the same year that Oregon became the 33rd state of the union. Every year, the fair attracts massive crowds delighting fair goers with music, food, carnival games, and rides.
Unfortunately, like most aspects of life in the United States, county fairs and traveling carnival shows have a history many would like to deny. One that is rooted in white supremacy and racism and the Lane County Fair is no exception. In 1902, the fair hosted a “plantation show” with performances by “real negroes.”
In 2022, 120 years later, the fair featured two stuffed toys that were on display and offered to participants as carnival game prizes. When a Black community member called the county fair main number to ask for the offensive “Black Rastafarian monkeys” and “Hispanic people represented as tacos” to be removed, they said they were treated with covert racism.
While the United States has slowly struggled to move forward with civil rights, diversity, equality, and inclusion, the rhetoric and efforts of those who try to dehumanize specific demographics of our society for holy profitable gain has also grown.
According to a Snopes News Archive and fact check analysis, between the years of at least 1884 and 1950 , fair-goers were delighted, horrified, and traumatized by carnival games such as “The Black (or) African Dodger” also known as “Hit a [N-word] Baby,” and the “African Dip.” These games placed Black and African Americans into dangerous situations, risking harm for the delight and entertainment of a predominately white audience.
Contestants, usually white adults males, would line up for the chance to throw baseballs aiming to hurt a Black individual. One game even dared the audience to hit a person in the face before they were able to move their head out the way.
The other, turned into a popular carnival ride, is still used to this day. Though, later on, one would be tempted with violence towards a “clown,” a literal effort to whitewash the games’ first victims away from the collective memory.
If you hadn’t guessed by now, it’s currently called the “dunk tank.”
During that same period in time, individuals in society were bombarded by racist images delivered through advertising. To garner a laugh from white, Anglo-saxon, and predominantly protestant audiences ads, cartoons, and greeting cards were created likening Black and African Americans to apes, implying that they are less than human.
Studies have shown that these negative depictions of people compared to animals, among other things, including food, lead to negative results for all viewers and an increase in hate.
For marginalized communities, these images can lead to a low self worth, self hatred, a lack of interest in school and life, depression, and worse. Due to the effects these images have on young white audiences, studies into dehumanization also show that these dehumanizing depictions increase feelings of superiority, apathy, hatred, and violence.
Even though the Lane County Board voted unanimously in 2020 to denounce white nationalism (not white supremacy) and, in 2021, adopted a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, applying an anti-racist and equity lens to the county’s work has been a slow task.
This year, some parts of the fair failed to pass through that lens entirely. On Saturday, July 23, Laural O’Rourke—a diversity, equity, and inclusion advocate, community member, and 4J School Board member, and Black woman—noticed two prizes that she immediately identified as racist.
But when O’Rourke called the Lane County Fair Board to notify them of the issue; she says she was treated with covert racism and that, initially, her concerns were dismissed. O’Rourke said that the call taker said they would speak with management and call her back.
Three hours later, O’Rourke had not heard back from the fair. She called again and said she was told by the same person that “the managers were too busy” to address the matter, “to calm down,” and “to stop harassing them about it.”
Not one to be deterred easily, O’Rourke took her concerns to social media and called upon the community to help her take action to have the items removed. Quickly, other concerned community members took up the call and voiced their concerns about the prizes as well.
O’Rourke then sent an email to the Lane County Board to bring awareness to the fact that the prizes were racist and that the equity lens be applied to all Lane County contracts.
Eventually, a response was prepared and sent out by Devon Ashbridge, Lane County’s public information officer, to the concerned community members. Ashbridge wanted to let people know that “staff asked carnival employees to rotate the offensive prizes out of the booths for the remainder of the fair.”
Some community members were sent photos the next day to confirm that the prizes had been moved out of the booth. O’Rourke, though, was not included in those emails, so she attended the fair again on Sunday, July 24.
O’Rourke noticed that, although the offensive monkeys had been removed, the tacos were still hanging up in some of the booths. Ashbridge was also there that day and she took a few moments to speak with O’Rourke and DSM directly about the prizes.
Ashbridge said that she was happy to be meeting with O’Rourke in person and said, again, that the county “understood that members of the community found some of the prizes to be racist.” Ashbridge further added “that they reacted as quickly as possible to address their concerns.”
When asked why the tacos were still hanging in some of the game booths, Ashbridge indicated that “the company hired to run the carnival had a greater inventory of the tacos.” She said that those prizes were hanging up in more than one booth and were more difficult to rotate fully out of the inventory.
In a follow up email to DSM, Ashbridge explained that, though the county has had complaints in the past, this is the first time they have had complaints about the prizes.
“In previous years, there have been some complaints regarding displays of a political nature. As a public entity, Lane County must uphold everyone’s free speech rights and those complaints were related to the First Amendment.
The complaints this year differed in nature and did not focus on political speech, but the concern regarding two styles of carnival prizes that could be viewed as having racist connotations. This is the first year that complaints of this nature have been shared with Fair staff.”
Ashbridge went on to explain that Lane County reacted “upon receiving the first concerns from fair-goers and community members” and worked with the carnival to address their concerns. She added further:
“We recognize that it takes courage to speak up, especially for people of color and others who are marginalized. Understanding the concern regarding these carnival prizes will help Lane Events Center plan for next year’s Fair, work with the carnival vendor in advance, and make the Fair more inclusive and welcoming for everyone. Fair staff have spoken with the carnival operator about the expectation that these prizes do not return in the future.
Fair staff will also be able to use Lane County’s recently established “equity lens” when selecting Fair partners. This will allow Lane County to be proactive rather than reactive with our expectations regarding equity. The equity lens is a process by which Lane County staff can evaluate programs or services to ensure that the needs and perspectives of a diverse array of people are considered.”
Ashbridge also said that the board intends to use this year’s feedback to guide their future partnerships for the fair carnival rides and games.
“Fair staff will also be able to use Lane County’s recently established “equity lens” when selecting Fair partners. This will allow Lane County to be proactive rather than reactive with our expectations regarding equity. The equity lens is a process by which Lane County staff can evaluate programs or services to ensure that the needs and perspectives of a diverse array of people are considered.”
Furthermore, Ashbridge said that “all regular Lane County employees are required to participate in a minimum of three hours of equity training each year.” Ashbridge said that this will help to “ensure County services represent and are accessible to all community members.”
The county did react rather quickly to other safety concerns at the Lane County Fair though.
Due to a seemingly accidental deployment of a weapon by a teenage Black person during the 2021 county fair after an altercation with a white adult male, Lane County enacted new security measures for the 2022 event. These measures included a clear bag policy and a possible request to empty pockets. However, there was no further information available to explain who would perform those random checks or why, or whether the “equity lens” would be used while making those judgment calls.