Honestly, I think "circus-like" was a very poor word choice, and he absolutely should have had to apologize for that. (Disclosure: I'm not a member of a racial group who might be offended by this phrase, and I have never heard that particular phrase used specifically for the purpose of slandering one group before, but . . .)
"circus" has a lot more connotations than just "fun":
- out of control
- put on purely for the entertainment of others who can afford to NOT work there
- animals and "circus freaks"
- outwardly bright and colorful, but lacking any significant depth (unlike, say, a play or a novel)
- dishonesty in the form of rip-off prices, fixed carnival games, outright fraud (exhibiting a cow fetus in a jar as a "baby alien", etc.)
- circus performers lack roots in one place, so aren't tied in to a good honest community
Given all that, I think there are many other words for "fun" that should have been used in place of "circus-like" unless the event was, in fact, circus-themed. And I can totally understand how members of one particular group - who have a history (not necessarily all that long ago, either) of being looked down upon for being unpredictable/unsafe, lower social status, freaks/animals, shallow and incapable of deep thoughts and emotions, and inherently thieves and lazy cheaters - would object to the use of "circus-like" when any one of a dozen other words would have done just as well.
Then, if the apology was of the "Geez, lighten up! I didn't mean anything by it, but I'm sorry you're offended!" variety, I can 100% understand getting angry over it. Half the issue was caused because
the writer and the editor "didn't mean anything" by it - it wasn't offensive to them, so they didn't stop to consider how it might sound to someone with a different racial history. It's kind of like how teens today will call things "gay
" - they will all swear they don't mean anything by it, and calling their math homework gay
has no relationship
to homosexuality, but they're still unquestioningly associating "gay
" with "bad."
If the reporter were just using this phrase verbally in some off-the-cuff chat one-on-one with someone, it might not be worth the effort to bring it up. However, because this was printed, it should be held to a higher standard because the reporter had more time to think through and edit. And since it was in a newspaper, the article implicitly suggested to all the readers that using "circus-like" was the most appropriate wording in this context. What might not have been worth confronting in a one-person conversation becomes more important when it's been broadcast to thousands of people.
Anyway, I'm not of an ethnic group who would have taken offense, but I do think the reporter and editor should have chosen another word. And once they'd printed "circus-like" by mistake, they should have made the effort to really understand what people were upset over, instead of just shrugging and saying "People get offended by all sorts of silly things, so I'm not going to worry about it."