In this election year in which overheated rhetoric is already a hallmark and at a time when everyone’s emotions are already running high, Nebraskans must take a stand against the use of race-baiting in political advertising and messaging by local candidates and campaigns.
In this context, “race-baiting” means instances when a politician, political party, or political campaign employs racial stereotypes, messaging, or imagery for political gain by stoking racial resentment or fears in their supporters.
Race-baiting impoverishes our political discourse and undercuts the anti-racism efforts in our community. But more importantly, race-baiting insults and demeans our friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Now more than ever, we need to stand unified against racism and behind messages of inclusion. And we need our politicians to focus on the issues affecting all Nebraskans.
Earlier this spring, in the state legislative race between Republicans Janet Palmtag and Senator Julie Slama, the Nebraska Republican Party and Governor Pete Ricketts funded the production and distribution of a flyer with side-by-side photos of Palmtag and Senator Ernie Chambers, the highest profile African-American elected official in the state. The flyer included incendiary language such as “radical extremist” and “atheist,” and even images of chains. It was rightly condemned by Republicans, Democrats, and most local media as a textbook example of race-baiting.
More recently, Representative Don Bacon, through his campaign social media accounts, has engaged in the same type of race-baiting. His campaign posted a link to a Fox News article about Representative Ilan Omar (D-MN), a Muslim woman of color, and wrote,
Rep. Omar and Kara Eastman [Democratic candidate for NE-CD2] share the same radical philosophy. Both are members of [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s] Justice Democrats – the leftmost fringe of the Democrat Party. Our country’s economic freedoms have created the most prosperous nation in the world & have elevated more people out of poverty than any other system. Omar & Eastman want to dismantle it.
Similar to Senator Slama’s attack on candidate Palmtag, this message from Congressman Bacon’s campaign sought to connect candidate Eastman explicitly with people of color, Omar and Ocasio-Cortez, about whom we are told we should be afraid. To hammer home the point, both examples employed words like “radical” and “fringe.” Palmtag will side with atheists like Chambers; Eastman and Omar will “dismantle” our country. The claims in these social media posts are unfounded but follow the same racially-charged theme: A vote for Eastman or Palmtag is a vote for being overrun by minorities and extremists.
This call to desist from race-baiting isn’t about partisanship. While Bacon and Eastman represent opposing political parties, both Palmtag and Slama are Republicans. Rather, the focus is on the kind of political discourse we need as a community, and we must stand against a discourse fueled by race-baiting.
Employing tactics that tap into the very worst parts of our shared history dishonors those that spent their whole lives striving for a more perfect union. We owe them better and we owe our children better.
Rather than employing fear — and, in particular, a fear of the Other — to differentiate one candidate from another, politicians should focus on their policy positions. Indeed, given the massive shock associated with COVID-19 and related health care and economic concerns, there are a great many issues about which voters need to hear and see a serious and thoughtful public debate.