In 1990 I had lived in Charlotte, North Carolina a little over a year and I was in the 9th grade. That year there was a very important Senate race. Long time incumbent/racist/homophobe/Republican Jesse Helms was defending his seat against the first viable Democratic canidate in years, Harvey Gantt. Gantt was also black. Now given Helm’s chokehold on the eastern part of the state where most of the population was and the amount of money he was able to raise, it was unlikely that Harvey Gantt was ever going to win the seat. But there was a wave of enthusiasm that was propelling Gantt closer and closer in the polls. I even volunteered with the Young Democrats that year and bored my fellow junior high students to death with talk of politics (some things NEVER change).
Then the infamous “White Hands” ad came out playing on the racial fears of poor and working-class white people and Jesse Helms won by a landslide.
This was not the first and it wouldn’t be the last time Republicans used the race card to try and win elections. Race-baiting has a long and hearty tradition in America but was formalized in modern politics by the Southern Strategy during the Nixon era where the Republicans gathered up all of the disaffected racist Democrat votes in the southern states by playing into their racial fears after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For those not familiar with this history, you can read a short but informative article here.
Now most people of color who live here in Massachusetts can tell you that it’s still a pretty racist state but for the most part we have it a lot better than those living in the Midwest and South so the use of blatant race-baiting tends to be frowned upon. Or so I thought.
Enter Scott Brown, incumbent senator who won the seat left vacant by the death of long-time politician, Ted Kennedy. His challenger is Elizabeth Warren, Harvard professor and the main force behind the creation of the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency. It was always going to be a tough race. Scott Brown is getting loads of outside money and he is supposed to be a “gifted campaigner”. But by the time the first debate rolled around, Warren was up in the polls by 5 points and gaining momentum. True to Republican form, Brown spend the first 6 minutes of a 55 minute debate discussing whether or not Warren is Native American and whether or not she “benefited” from that designation.
I was disappointed because I really thought that this could be a debate about the issues. I found this deviation low-class, racist and beneath what is expected in a state like Massachusetts. Yet after seeing that this line of attack was not going anywhere in the debate, Scott Brown doubled down and released this ad the very next day:
The feeling that Scott Brown is trying to harvest with this attack angle is the exact same feeling that Jesse Helms harvested with his “white hands” ad. Right-leaning, working-class white people seriously believe that their life is less than what it could be because people of color get preferential treatment because of affirmative action. Not because they didn’t go to college. Not because they didn’t study in school or make good financial decisions. Not because the government has been in the pockets of corporations. And just in case you wanted to find some half-assed explanation for this emphasis in the campaign, this rally led by Scott Brown staffers made sure you understood where they were coming from. Fake Native “war whoops” and ‘tomahawk chops”.
And just today, a crazy-ass Republican in Hanson, MA posted this sign in his yard:
As I was writing this draft over the last few days after I saw the debate, Rachel Maddow, resident of Massachusetts, made the same connection with the Jesse Helms ad I did and, as always, made an articulate response to this strategy.