A depressing return to a well-worn election playbook — because it works
Republicans lean into racist rhetoric ahead of the midterms
It’s no surprise that fear of the other — of what they want and what they might do to you and yours — is on the ballot in November.
Former President George H.W. Bush’s success in making Willie Horton the figurative running mate of his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, has nothing on race-baiting, the 2022 edition. In a close midterm election cycle, attack ads and accusations aimed at Black candidates, or any candidate that might be interested in restorative justice, are front and center, as Republicans running for office have returned to the playbook, one that unfortunately has worked time and again.
To many, Black people are viewed with suspicion straight out of the womb, and I’m only slightly exaggerating. Data backs me up. Just look at the greater percentage of Black boys and girls suspended or arrested for school infractions that earn white peers a lecture or visit to the principal’s office. Take note of the litany of unarmed Black people shot or choked by trained police officers who “feared for their lives,” with no benefit of the doubt to save them.
Even when the Black person under the microscope is educated and accomplished and has reached the highest of heights, the “othering” doesn’t go away. If the person can’t be tagged a criminal, he or she must be sympathetic to criminals. Guilt by historical association, you might say, because the tactic can be traced back hundreds of years, when dehumanizing Black people, connecting them to violence and crime, was the best way to justify murder, rape and lynching.
As Margaret A. Burnham, a law professor who founded the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University, points out in her book “By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners,” throughout American history it was whites — bus drivers, store owners, ordinary people — who perpetrated random terror against Black people without consequence.
For the best example of predominantly white mob violence in the past few years, you need look no further than the videos and other evidence of windows and doors smashed, American institutions defiled and law enforcement beaten and attacked on Jan. 6, 2021. The goal was lawlessness, the overturning of a free and fair election.
I might add that it was left to mostly minority government employees to clean up the literal mess.
But stubborn facts won’t get in the way when there is political hay to be made.
At its most base level, there are attack ads that darken the skin of Black candidates such as Stacey Abrams, running against Republican incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia, and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, taking on GOP Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. In their recent debate, Johnson accused Barnes of turning “against America” — and that was when he was asked to say something positive about his opponent. Not only are Black folks criminals, apparently, they are somehow not even American, a charge repeatedly faced by former President Barack Obama, whose relatively scandal-free eight years in office compares quite favorably to his successor, whose most recent reported grift was bilking American taxpayers by inflating charges at Trump hotels for members of the Secret Service.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio accuses his Democratic challenger, Rep. Val B. Demings, of wanting to defund the police, to which the former Orlando police chief can answer, “I am the police.”
But, you might ask, what about Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate giving incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock a run for his money in Georgia? Doesn’t that prove Republicans have no problem with Black men, considering how many top leaders are defending the former football star?
When I see the GOP backing a man with Walker’s political, ethical and personal failings, someone who has trouble with the truth as well as maintaining relationships with his many children and their mothers, I can’t help but think this is the kind of Black man his party is comfortable with, one that fits every negative stereotype, one who will follow their lead. Imagine the attacks on a Black Democratic candidate with that résumé.
When Walker stands with senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Rick Scott of Florida, he looks as much a prop as the badge he flashed at his only debate with Warnock.
I witness that tableau and feel pretty angry for my late father, a quintessential American, who worked hard and did whatever he had to do to care for the wife and five children he adored. We would kid him that in his ideal world, we would all get married, have kids and return home so he could be close — and he did not disagree. Dad, a Lincoln Republican, would not recognize what and whom his party elevates.
It would disgust him to hear Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, the perfect GOP example of the playbook for this year’s midterms. Tuberville traveled all the way to Nevada for a Donald Trump rally to make the claim that Democrats are “pro-crime.” To make his racist intent clear, he threw in a reparations reference, adding, “They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that,” ending with a profanity for emphasis.
Reparations, of course, means compensation for the labor of the men, women and children who helped build this country under the most cruel conditions. It’s most galling when you remember the former football coach made his fortune and reputation on the backs of many young, unpaid Black men.
Yet Tuberville felt free to demonize Black people because there was no cost, no condemnation from others in his party, no drop in the polls for the GOP candidates he was stumping for — nothing. Some in his party even defended him.
And that’s the troubling thing. This kind of racist rhetoric, which has served as inspiration for young white men before attacks at a Charleston church and a Buffalo supermarket, is ramping up, and it will not end until enough people call it out — until it no longer works.
Former Iowa Rep. Steve King must be wishing he had only waited a few years before cozying up to white nationalism, endorsing “great replacement” conspiracy and tagging “the other” as criminals intent on destroying America.
Where once he was punished by his Republican Party, at this moment he and his brand would fit perfectly.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.