A Wyoming legislator has apologized after posting a tweet with racist connotations about Wyoming’s first Black sheriff earlier this week.
Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Sheridan, said he has since called newly appointed Albany County Sheriff Aaron Appelhans — a Black man — to apologize after replying on Twitter to an article about Appelhans’ appointment with a GIF depicting actor Cleavon Little asking, “Where the white women at?” The clip is from the satirical Mel Brooks film “Blazing Saddles.”
Western, who deleted his tweet after an outpouring of criticism, said that it was intended to be a reference to the film and was not intended to disparage Appelhans. In the film, Little played protagonist Sheriff Bart, a former slave who challenges the racist sensibilities of an all-white town in a satirical lampooning of the racism often obscured by Hollywood’s depictions of the Old West.
“I’d like to issue a retraction,” Western wrote in a tweet Wednesday morning. “My remark about the new Albany Sheriff was dumb and uncalled for.”
“What I did was insensitive, and, while unintended, I recognize that it was wrong,” he added. “I hope he accepts my apology.”
Speaking Wednesday evening, Appelhans confirmed Western had called him to apologize.
“We definitely had a conversation about — how do I say it — his tweet and the connotations of it as well, racist connotations. He was apologetic and we had a conversation about being a politician and making sure you’re representing the people who elected you to office,” Appelhans said. “Just on a broader scale, knowing he represents a portion of the state, he also represents the state as well.”
Though he says it was intended in jest, Western’s tweet contained a stereotype of Black men that dates back centuries.
The line in the movie — which is now hailed as an anti-racist classic — evoked by Western played on a racist trope of a sexually aggressive Black man pursuing a white woman perpetuated in propaganda spread throughout the U.S. during the Jim Crow Era. While still played upon in popular media, the trope is not a harmless one, contributing to a narrative that fueled lynchings of Black people throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, most notably the teenaged Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955.
The racist underpinnings of the trope are clearly defined in “Blazing Saddles” as well. In the film, the line was used by Bart in an effort to draw the attention of a handful of Ku Klux Klan members to steal their robes in order to eavesdrop on the film’s main antagonist.
“It was stupid, and I wasn’t really thinking,” Western said in an interview Wednesday morning. “It was a reference to an old comedy satire movie where an African American Sheriff moves to a Western town and breaks down norms. That was the sentiment, there was never any kind of malice or anything, and it was only afterwards I realized that it was really dumb.”
Appelhans said he was disappointed when he first learned of the tweet. He knew going into the job that such a situation might arise, he said. Situations like this one have happened before, he added.
Western “definitely knows what he did was wrong,” Appelhans said, but the new sheriff also stressed that given their positions, they might work together in the future.
“And there’s a potential for us to cross paths with both of our positions and law enforcement working on some of the bills that are gonna be in the state Legislature,” Appelhans said. “I basically told him I have expectations for him and I’m looking forward to him meeting those expectations and be better.”
Western frequently posts tweets and articles challenging politically correct culture, oftentimes criticizing the American left.
He has stated in the past identity politics — or demographically based allegiances between certain races, religions or social groups to a specific political party — practiced by Democrats were “killing America,” and recently posted a video satirizing journalists for Vice Magazine overly concerned with gender and race issues.
More recently, he lambasted the authors of the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” a controversial retelling of American history through the lens of the contributions of Black Americans.
However, Western has also acknowledged racial disparities that continue to persist in American life, pointing out the high rates of unemployment among people of color — particularly Black Americans — in comparison to relatively low rates among whites amid the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the struggles faced by the ancestors of freed slaves to prove ancestral ownership of their land under the nation’s inflexible estate rules.
While Western said it’s acceptable to have a debate about the definition of social justice in America today, he said it’s another thing to overstep.
“I think (it’s acceptable) to have a lively discussion about cultural boundaries,” Western said in response to how his past statements related to his decision. “I think it’s totally another to make a comment that is absolutely unacceptable. That’s where I crossed the line. Everybody makes mistakes, but you’ve got to hold yourself accountable. So I called Sheriff Appelhans and I apologized.”