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Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011

State Fair Memories

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When I was young, the classic film State Fair was remade starring, appropriately enough, Pat Boone. Through the generations, state fairs have been the ultimate white-bread experience.

This year the Wisconsin State Fair made a conscious effort to try to market to urban Milwaukee and expand the racial diversity of its audience.

Tragically, the goodwill attempt to be more racially inclusive didn't even survive opening day.

The races are so extremely isolated from each other in Milwaukee and Wisconsin that white terror over interracial violence provoked exactly the wrong reaction to an ugly incident on opening night.

Because of poor media coverage, facts about exactly what happened that night were in short supply. Exaggerated rumors and the inflamed racist rhetoric of right-wing talk shows dominated the discussion.

Estimates of a violent group of young African Americans who caused trouble in the fair's midway and, later, outside the fair at closing time ranged from several dozen to "hundreds!"

What is known for sure is there were at least two separate incidents. A fight in the midway apparently involved only black youths.

What prompted the gross overreaction from fair authorities, however, was what happened at closing time. Witnesses said angry young blacks intentionally targeted whites, hitting them on the street and even as they were stopped in traffic in their cars.

Everyone should agree there is absolutely no excuse for violence at an all-ages entertainment event like State Fair. If there wasn't adequate security in the midway or outside as people were leaving, there should have been.

But it's also disturbing that the fight in the midway instantly faded in importance because of community outrage over the interracial violence outside.

Violence at State Fair against anyone—black or white—is abhorrent. It certainly wouldn't have been any more acceptable if violent young blacks had attacked only African Americans leaving the fair.

Yet it is hard to imagine the same community horror.

That's because blacks attacking whites is the nightmare of many whites who have very little actual contact with African Americans. And that's the definition of rural and small-town whites from outstate who attend the Wisconsin State Fair.

That's why State Fair immediately took the totally inappropriate action of banning all young people under 18 from entering the fair after 5 p.m. unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.

From the beginning, fairs always have been for the young. But no longer in Wisconsin. It's just an absurd overreaction.

Different Community Response

The community's response to this violence has differed from the recent past as well. Everyone in the state knows about the worst violent crime ever associated with the Wisconsin State Fair—one that could have been fatal. Two years ago, as Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and members of his family were leaving the fair, he was brutally attacked by an adult male. Barrett was beaten with a tire iron, losing teeth and suffering head injuries and permanent damage to one hand.

Because Barrett's attacker was white, however, other than the violent assailant himself, none of us who are white ever had to answer for that crime.

We were never called upon to explain why whites are so violent. We were not publicly lambasted on talk radio for our parenting skills and our moral values. State Fair authorities never considered concocting new rules to prevent whites over 18 from entering the fair after 5 p.m. without supervision.

Despite what Sheriff David Clarke and other stars of right-wing radio say, the young blacks arrested at the fair face severe punishment. Many of them may well enter the criminal justice system, never to make it out again.

And the go-to talk-show explanation—blaming their parents—won't do a thing to prevent the racial violence that terrifies so many whites. We need to find out why some young African Americans are so angry and violent, whether that violence is directed at whites or other blacks.

People shouldn't make sweeping assumptions about parents they've never met, but it's possible some young people aren't fortunate enough to have anyone in their lives who cares about them. If that's true, it's in the interest of white society to create positive support structures to improve the lives of young blacks. At a minimum, we should provide a first-class educational system and equal employment opportunities.

And every young person, regardless of color, should be free to create lifelong summer memories of state fairs, just like Pat Boone and I did.