The High-Tech Lynching of Harold Ford Jr.

by Randy Shaw on October 31, 2006

The Tennessee Senate Race between Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Harold Ford Jr has not aroused as much national interest as the Connecticut and Virginia races, but recent events should change this. In the past two weeks, the Republican Party and its allies have engaged in the most blatant racist attacks on a Senate candidate that have been seen anywhere in America for at least three decades. Commercials have sought to link the African-American Ford to having sexual interest in white prostitutes, and one ad tells voters that Ford is black, Corker is white, and that if you don’t vote for Ford you are a racist (the implication being that this is Ford’s message to white voters). Harold Ford Jr would become the first African-American Senator elected from the South since the end of Reconstruction. For all of the talk about racial progress in the South, Tennessee Republicans are returning to the tactics of the “good old days” to keep the “uppity” Ford in his place.

As young African-Americans soldiers die on the battlefields of Iraq, the national Republican Party and its allies are running television ads accusing Tennessee’s African-American Senate candidate of having an unhealthy sexual interest in white women. America is past the days when a young African-American Emmett Till can be lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman, but the Party that has built its electoral power on racial appeals is still singing Dixie in its quest for white southern votes.

Harold Ford, Jr is a surprising target for such attacks. Ford has long maintained a political identity distinct from such African-American leaders as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and, like Barack Obama, he has been seen as the type of black politician who does not “scare” white voters.

Ford’s political views are also well to the right of other Black Congressmembers. He opposes gay marriage, believes that “church and faith have always been central to who I am as a person, “ and his policy views are largely Democratic-lite.

While Ford’s views would not get him elected in San Francisco, and he may be to the right of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tennessee went with Bush over its own Al Gore in 2000 and has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since Gore. For this moderate to conservative state to elect an African-American Democrat from Memphis seemed impossible at the start of 2006, and Ford appeared to be engaged in a quixotic quest.

But two developments changed the political calculus. First, the ongoing Iraq disaster and Bush’s falling approval numbers put even presumably safe Republican seats at risk. Second, Ford demonstrated a rare ability to emotionally connect with white voters.

Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson recently wrote that he had never seen a black politician generate as much positive emotional response from white voters as does Harold Ford Jr. A professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville told a friend of mine that he could not believe the support Ford was getting from whites in the rural areas of Tennessee.

Clearly, what makes secular progressives uncomfortable with Ford—his framing of messages in religious and spiritual terms—resonates with white Tennessee voters.

Ford was in a statistical tie with Corker when the national Republican Party decided to go back to their old playbook for winning campaigns. They used one of their many “independent” campaigns to run an ad that showed what appeared to be a naked blonde white woman implying that she met Ford at the Playboy Mansion. The ad concluded with the woman looking into the camera and asking Ford to call her.

The ad sought to revive longstanding racist stereotypes about black men desiring white women. Thousands of black men have been lynched in America for the “crime” of allegedly looking at white women as sexually desirable. Republicans hoped to awaken these racist feelings to deflate Ford’s surprising success among less educated, rural white voters.

Of course, Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman joined Corker, the newspapers and other media in attacking the ads as racist, but said he had no control of the RNC-authorized commercial. Although Corker vowed to stop the commercial from running, it continued to dominate the Tennessee airwaves.

(This ad and others can be found at Type in Harold Ford where it says “Search”)

Internal polling data must have shown that Corker was benefiting from his racist appeals, as a new “independent” video emerged that was even more blatantly racist. The video places a sharp line between Ford and Corker and the voiceover says “One is Black, one is White. One is a Democrat, One is a Republican, followed by other contrasts. The video shows footage of black families on Ford’s side, and white families on Corker’s. The piece concludes by saying “We all know that it is racist for whites to vote for Corker.”

White voters are likely to react to such an ad by thinking, “Don’t insult me by calling me a racist just because I’m not voting for a black candidate.” And since the sponsor of the ad is not clearly identified with either candidate, many voters will likely think that Ford is making his own blatantly racist appeal to win white votes.

In the sick, race-baiting world of Southern Republican campaign consultants, there’s nothing better than turning charges of racism against victimized African-Americans.

Former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms ran an infamous ad against black Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt in 1990 that showed white workers losing their jobs so that blacks could be hired. That ad was widely condemned for appealing to racism, but it did touch upon whites’ opposition to affirmative action and other measures that sought to compensate blacks for 300 years of denying them civil rights.

The Corker ads involve no “policy” component at all. They are simply racist appeals out of the Little Black Sambo, watermelon-eating school of right-wing politics in the land of the free and home of the brave.

Pundits are now predicting a Corker victory in Tennessee. Should this occur, you can be sure that the racist advertising’s impact will be downplayed if not ignored in post-election media analyses.

Former Alabama Governor and arch-segregationist George Wallace stated after he lost an election in the 1950’s that he would “never be out-niggered again.” Wallace believed that winning elections in the South depended on taking the most racist positions possible, which is why he preached “Segregation Today, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever.”

If Harold Ford Jr cannot overcome racist appeals in the border state of Tennessee, it is hard to see any Black candidate winning a Southern Senate seat in the future.

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