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U.S. Politicians Find Ways to Play on Racial Fears


A Republican congressional candidate in a majority-White Mississippi district runs ads trying to tie his Democratic rival with Barack Obama’s former pastor, seen by some as an anti-White firebrand. Democrats distribute fliers accusing the Republican of wanting a statue to honor the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.

The only Black justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court is defeated after his rival runs an ad with the justice’s picture next to that of a Black convict. A watchdog group calls it a “disgraceful attack.”

In South Carolina, a Republican challenger for the U.S. Senate airs an ad with people stepping over wire fencing and protesters holding “Secure Our Borders” signs. It includes a man and woman saying, “Muchas gracias, Lindsey Graham,” the incumbent Republican.

In the first year a major party is poised to choose a Black nominee for president, American politicians are still appealing to voters’ racial fears, with varying degrees of success.

“Racial fears and racial conflict are certainly not segregated to the South,” said Dr. Michael Dawson, a University of Chicago political scientist who has studied race in politics. “Certainly, I think we see it in most parts of the country.”

Republicans have a long and often successful history of trying to label local Democrats as national Democrats, even when the local candidate disagrees with the national party on some issues.

That happened a few weeks ago in special elections for open congressional seats in Mississippi and Louisiana, where the Democrats both ran as anti-abortion and pro-gun candidates positions that put them at odds with their national party.

After both Democrats won, Republican campaign leaders immediately said they would re-evaluate their strategy because the tactic appeared to backfire by increasing Black voter turnout for the Democrats.

Dawson, though, said that with a Black nominee at the top of the Democratic ticket, the conservatives’ tactic of tying local Democratic candidates to the national party will be “doubly effective” in stirring up some voters’ fears.

Dr. Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist, said candidates in the U.S. have long played to people’s fears and biases, but they’re now using more subtle methods than politicians did in the days of the Dixiecrats, the Southern segregationists who split from the Democratic Party in the mid-1960s.

“You cannot be blatantly racist anymore,” Gillespie said.

She said politicians now use tactics described by Princeton University political scientist Tali Mendelberg in her 2001 book, The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages and the Norm of Equality.

Mendelberg wrote about the use of images and buzz words to appeal to people’s subconscious ideas about race. She called this “implicit priming.”

“You’re basically winking as you say ‘antibusing’ or ‘law and order’ or ‘welfare queens’ as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s,” Gillespie said. “If you can sort of tap into those internal prejudices … you can have the same effect as if you straight up use the N-word.”

Mississippi, among the states with the highest number of Black elected officials, still sees campaigns use race as a wedge, including a special election for an open congressional seat this year.

The Republican congressional candidate was Greg Davis, mayor of Southaven, a Mississippi suburb of Memphis, Tenn. He ran a TV ad that said Travis Childers had been endorsed by Obama. The narrator’s voice dripped with derision as he said, “when Obama’s pastor cursed America, blaming us for 9-11, Childers said nothing.”

Davis stands by the ad. Childers, who, like Davis, is White, called the ad “mean-spirited.”

“Rev. Chuck Hampton is my pastor at East Booneville Baptist Church,” Childers said. “You can put anything he does wrong squarely on me. But y’all are not holding me accountable for Rev. Jeremiah Wright.”

Days before the May 13 election, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee mailed copies of a flier with a photo of an exasperated Black man next to the words: “Greg Davis wants to honor the founder of the KKK with a statue in Southaven.”

In defense of the mailing, congressional campaign committee spokesman Doug Thornell cited news reports from 2005, when Memphis officials decided against removing Confederate names and statues from two public parks. One park is named for Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the other for Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who founded the KKK but later spoke out against the group’s violence.

Greg Davis said recently that he offered in 2005 to take the Jefferson Davis statue for his city, and the mayor of nearby Hernando, Miss., offered to take the Forrest statue.

“As you go through a campaign a lot of facts are distorted and lies are told,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, I think that one had an effect in certain communities.”

His own ad about Wright raised legitimate questions about Democrats, Davis maintained.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler was defeated this year after his opponent, Michael Gableman, ran a TV ad that said Butler “worked to put criminals on the street.” It showed Butler’s photo next to one of Reuben Lee Mitchell, who was accused of rape in 1984. Both men are Black.

“Butler found a loophole,” the ad says. “Mitchell went on to molest another child.”

Butler had once represented Mitchell as a public defender and won him a new trial, but that ruling was overturned and did not lead to Mitchell’s release. However, he was paroled years later and raped a runaway.

The Wisconsin Judicial Campaign Integrity Committee compared the ad to the one used against Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988, with a photo of Black convict Willie Horton, who had committed crimes during a weekend furlough program that Dukakis had supported as Massachusetts governor.

Gableman’s campaign adviser Darrin Schmitz defended the spot as a “comparison ad.”

The political scientists Gillespie and Dawson both pointed to the 2006 U.S. Senate race in Tennessee as an example of advertising that plays on people’s fears about interracial dating. Democratic U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who is Black, lost the contest to Republican Bob Corker.

A TV spot paid for by the Republican National Committee used a bare-shouldered White actress who chirped, “I met Harold at the Playboy party!” It apparently was a reference to Ford’s attending a 2005 Playboy Super Bowl party in Jacksonville, Fla.

Ford responded by telling reporters: “I was there. I like football, and I like girls.”

Gillespie said a candidate who’s the target of a racial jab either subtle or flagrant should publicly call the attack what it is. She said that changes the way viewers evaluate the ad because they are forced to deal more openly with their own biases about race.

“The Ford campaign’s response was the textbook wrong thing to do,” Gillespie said. “They demurred (rather than) … call it racist.”

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