Black advocates see racial attacks in GOP crime narratives

Associated Press-John Bazemore/Associated Press-Morry Gash

Black advocates and lawmakers are criticizing the GOP over attacks on Democrats regarding the issue of crime that they say carry racial undertones.

A series of ads hitting Democrats as too soft on crime, directed at some white candidates but also Black candidates such as Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin, are using the issue of race to ignite fear, the critics say.

“The narrative is to stir up fear and it is being used against Black and Brown candidates,” said Georgia state Sen. Tonya Anderson, chairwoman of the state’s Black Legislative Caucus. “We are trying to make our communities better and this is a fear tactic to push people away from voting for what is good and proper and right.” 

Some point to examples of political advertisements run by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s campaign in the Georgia gubernatorial race, in which it appears that Abrams’s skin was significantly darkened. Kemp’s team has also been accused of using a darkened image of Abrams in a fundraising email and on social media that argued she was “putting criminals first.”

Gerald Griggs, an attorney and president of Georgia’s NAACP, said the organization is aware of the ads being run by Kemp’s campaign and is “very concerned about any attempt to racialize a candidate.”

“Ms. Abrams is running on her own ability the same way Mr. Kemp is running on his own ability, and it should be about the policies, not racist dog whistles,” Griggs said. “This state is the birthplace of civil rights, we need to act accordingly.”

Kemp’s team has dismissed the criticism, calling it “ridiculous.”

“This is a desperate attack by a desperate campaign,” said Tate Mitchell, Kemp’s press secretary, in a statement to The Hill. “Stacey Abrams’s agenda for our state — including defunding the police, eliminating cash bail, and allowing criminals to roam our streets — is, in fact, dangerous.”

“Our TV ads — like every other campaign across the country — use filters and text overlays. They are used uniformly with multiple people and across multiple images. Any insinuation to the contrary is completely ridiculous,” Mitchell continued.

The Georgia Republican Party said claims of racist dog whistling are nothing more than “desperation.”

“Stacey Abrams is a soon-to-be twice-failed gubernatorial candidate and her campaign’s desperation absolutely reeks,” said Danielle Repass, press secretary for the Georgia Republican Party, in a statement to The Hill. 

“Abrams has supported each of Biden’s dangerous policies regardless of their consequences and like always, rather than holding her party accountable, Abrams chooses to lash out. Georgians can see through Stacey Abrams’ transparent hypocrisy, and that is why they will reject her, again, at the ballot box in November,” Repass continued. 

Kemp isn’t the only one accused of running racialized ads.   

An ad run earlier this year by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, pictured Barnes, running for a U.S. Senate seat in Wisconsin, with members of the progressive “squad” of Democratic lawmakers — all of them women of color — and the words “different” and “dangerous” superimposed over them. 

The ad received backlash from Barnes’s supporters, like the Service Employees International Union, among others. 

“They’re racist ads, but they’re subliminal,” argued Greg Lewis, a pastor in Milwaukee who leads the city’s Souls to the Polls nonprofit, which seeks to mobilize Black voters.

Lizzie Litzow, spokeswoman for the NRSC, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in response to the criticism that “Mandela Barnes has supported a radical, soft-on-crime agenda that would make Wisconsin communities less safe. We know he’s losing and getting desperate, but we’re going to keep reminding Wisconsin families that Mandela Barnes is a dangerous Democrat, and he’ll just have to deal with that.”

The NRSC did not respond to The Hill’s requests for comment. 

Republicans have increasingly leaned on crime messaging in the last months before the midterms amid signs the issue has become a top concern among voters across the country.

Between January and June of this year, robberies increased by nearly 12 percent across the country, the Major Cities Chiefs Association reported. Meanwhile, aggravated assaults increased about 3 percent.

“Crime is a top of mind issue for Black voters,” said Janiyah Thomas, manager for the Republican National Committee’s Black Media Affairs.

“Violent crimes disproportionately affect our communities, but Democrats continue to use race as a tactic to manipulate and divide Americans. Statistics don’t lie — Black Americans do not feel safe in Democrat-run cities. A Republican vote is a vote to restore safety in our communities and hold Democrats accountable for their pro-criminal agenda,” Thomas said.

Lewis, of Milwaukee’s Souls to the Polls, agreed that Black and brown voters share white voters’ concerns about the rise in crime. The Badger State last year had 315 homicides, up from 185 in 2019, according to the state’s Department of Justice. Milwaukee County led those numbers with 202 homicides — nearly 100 more than in 2019, Wisconsin Public Radio reported in March. 

But he argued that Republicans are using the issue of crime in a way that is “causing division that will probably be tough to heal in the very near future.” 

The issue was thrust into the spotlight recently, when Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) made remarks at a Nevada rally with former President Trump that linked slavery reparations to crime.

While hitting Democrats over being “pro-crime,” Tuberville said that they support reparations for the descendants of slaves because “they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”

The comments drew immediate backlash from Democrats and brought renewed scrutiny to the way the GOP has used the issue of crime to gin up support in the midterms.

Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist and founder and CEO of consulting firm Blueprint Strategy, said that Republicans have in particular seized on Democrats’ calls for justice reform in an effort to mobilize voters.

“What they’re trying to do is stir up fear, anger, frustration and confusion in order to get the political football across the goal line,” Seawright said.

The need to address racial disparities seen across all aspects of the criminal justice system — from arrests to incarceration rates to lengths of sentencing — has been a common focus in races across the country.

“Between 2020 and 2021 in Georgia we saw a real outpouring for criminal justice reform, health care enhancements, educational reforms,” added Griggs, of Georgia’s NAACP chapter. “Those are the things people are worried about, not so much crime.”

But those calls for justice reform have also opened candidates up to attacks.

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R) has repeatedly accused Barnes of wanting to “defund the police,” something the Democrat denies. At a campaign event in Milwaukee earlier this month with multiple law enforcement groups, Johnson said that Barnes has “far greater sympathy for the criminal or criminals versus law enforcement or the victims,” according to CNN.

In a statement to The Hill, the Barnes campaign said the Senate race remains a close one. 

“Despite Ron Johnson and his dark money donors’ $30 million smear campaign, this race remains neck and neck,” said Maddy McDaniel, a spokesperson for the Barnes campaign. “Armed with one of the largest third quarter fundraising hauls of any candidate this cycle, Lt. Governor Barnes is taking the fight to Ron Johnson, debunking his lies, and holding him accountable for his dangerous record of supporting an abortion ban with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother.”

Lewis, the pastor who works to mobilize Black voters in the city, said the GOP attacks on crime reminded him of the infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad that is credited for having helped elect former President George H.W. Bush. 

Horton was a Black prisoner in Massachusetts who, after being released on furlough, raped a white woman and stabbed her boyfriend. Bush’s campaign used the case to claim that Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, his Democratic opponent, wasn’t tough enough on crime.

Lewis said that while he doesn’t think Johnson is calling Barnes a criminal, he is “calling all the people around him criminals.”

“He wants to make sure that our white brothers and sisters understand the criminal element is prominent in the Black community and if you put Barnes in place, they’re going to show their faces at your door,” said Lewis.

Johnson’s team in a statement to The Hill emphasized that the campaign has focused on what is important to voters, including the rise in crime in the state.

“Ron Johnson is talking to voters about the issues important to them: inflation and out of control crime,” said Ben Voelkel, Johnson’s senior adviser. “Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Barnes can’t defend his own support for Biden’s economic agenda and dangerous policies like defunding the police, abolishing ICE and letting violent criminals walk free — an agenda that would make Wisconsin less prosperous and less safe.” 

The Republican Party of Wisconsin dismissed the idea of any identity politics being in play.

“The Evers-Barnes Administration has an abysmal record on crime; Our streets are unsafe, murder rates have spiked and both candidates stoked the flames while the City of Kenosha burned,” said Chad Doran, communications director for the organization. 

“Democrats can gaslight all they want, but we are not backing down from holding both of them accountable,” Doran added.

Seawright argued that Democrats, for their part, need to “over-emphasize” support for law enforcement in addition to their calls for accountability.

“There’s not a candidate running on the Democratic side who does not believe in keeping their communities and their families safe,” he said. “Democrats are for and have been clear about their support of law enforcement, in many ways — from the president on down.”

But Democrats also need to hold Republicans accountable, Seawright added. 

“We have not called them on the carpet for their racism,” he said. “They mask racism with this whole idea of patriotism, and we have to start holding these folks accountable for their words and for their deeds.”

Updated: 10:16 a.m.

Tags Brian Kemp Brian Kemp Crime defund the police Georgia Mandela Barnes midterms Ron Johnson Stacey Abrams Stacey Abrams Wisconsin
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