The city of Kingman, Arizona, is the latest target of Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical show Who Is America?, and local officials are scrambling to respond to the comedian’s portrayal of Kingman residents as racist.
In a segment that aired on Sunday, Cohen poses as a member of a development firm presenting plans for a multimillion dollar project in Kingman to a focus group of residents. When Cohen reveals the project would be the world’s largest mosque outside the Middle East, the locals are not pleased, and they vehemently criticize Cohen’s increasingly outlandish ideas. One participant says that he associates the word mosque with terrorism and later states that “we don’t even want [Muslims] in our town.” Another man asserts outright that he is “racist towards Muslims.” Someone else implies that even black people are unwelcome in Kingman.
Once Kingman’s leaders saw how the show depicted the city, they quickly tried to do some damage control. Mayor Monica Gates condemned the show’s portrayal, saying that it was misleading and did not reflect the city she knows. Gates also questioned whether the focus group participants were actually members of the community. “I didn’t recognize a soul in that video,” she told the Washington Post.
On Tuesday, the city posted a statement on Facebook, claiming that Cohen “baited” the focus group participants into making bigoted statements and further alleging that many of the people in the segment do not actually live in Kingman. The statement initially tries to downplay the significance of the Who Is America? segment, pointing to the show’s “very low ratings” and noting that other American cities have their fair share of intolerant residents.
However, the statement then pivots to announce that the city will double down on its diversity and inclusion efforts in response to the segment:
It might be easy to laugh off what took place Sunday night … [b]ut shrugging this off is not going to be us. We’re going to use this opportunity to keep moving our community forward with the help of many community stakeholders including the Kingman Interfaith Council. And while we’ve been making progress the comments in the show, fairly or unfairly, show that we still have more work to do.
The statement lists plans to introduce a resolution in support of National Hispanic Heritage Month, invite a prominent black pastor to Kingman to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and coordinate with Kingman’s Interfaith Council to develop the city’s first-ever Diversity Commission. These initial steps are promising, though it remains to be seen what will happen once the public outcry over the segment wanes.
Could Cohen have imagined that a town would attempt to reckon with the deep-seated racism and xenophobia exposed by his show? If so, Who Is America? might be good for much more than a few laughs.
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