There has been much written about the racial rhetoric that has permeated political discourse since President Obama took office, and the media often highlights the racially inflammatory language used by some of his opponents. But racially charged language targeting black Republicans rarely receives much coverage, further fueling conservative suspicion of the mainstream media.
Late last month, Gloreatha Scurry-Smith, a congressional candidate in Florida’s Fifth district, found that one of her campaign signs had been vandalized. Smith says she initially wasn’t surprised that one of her billboards had been defaced, but was taken aback when she saw that her face had been spray painted white on a towering 8-foot by 4-foot campaign billboard.
Though she emphasized she does not know the culprit’s motivation, Smith did say that she interpreted it as an attack on her status as a rather prominent black Republican.
“As a black conservative often times you are thought of as an Uncle Tom or perhaps a traitor to your own race,” Smith told The Daily Beast. “I didn’t want to deal with that since we have such serious issues in our district that are way more important than this sign.”
Smith, who goes by “Glo,” says she almost didn’t tell people about the incident. She waited for days, praying for guidance with her family. Eventually, Smith and her husband decided it was worth going public on social media in case other signs had been similarly defaced.
But once the incident was made public on June 29, only conservative and local outlets seemed to really treat it like major news. By comparison, a Nebraska parade float that featured an outhouse marked “Obama Presidential Library” drew international press attention last week due to its perceived racial connotations.
So is this merely a matter of a lesser-known candidate in a little-covered political race drawing less attention than attacks on the most watched political figure in the world, or is there something else at play?
According to former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, who is African-American, the media do not seem particularly interested in covering perceived racial slights when the victim is a black conservative.
But once the incident was made public on June 29, only conservative and local outlets seemed to really treat it like major news.
“In my race for the U.S. Senate, I was painted in blackface with big red lips and called an Uncle Tom,” Steele told the Beast. “I had Oreo cookies thrown at me during the Lieutenant Governor debate in 2002.
“And there seems to be this attitude they can get away with it and in a large number of ways they do. Because the press does not go after such attitudes the way they would if, for example, a conservative were seen holding a poster of Barack Obama in a disparaging caricature.”
Smith agrees. When asked if she believes race-based political attacks on black conservatives are treated less seriously than ones on other black Americans, she replied, “Of course, and you know that to be true yourself because you haven’t seen this story on liberal media channels or moderate [ones].”
To her point, there is regular coverage of Republicans accused of making racially biased remarks, whether they are nationally recognized figures, or merely local candidates and officials. I should know, having covered a number of such incidents.
But while the Republican National Committee has regularly denounced such incidents—even when the organization has no direct ties to the individuals involved—prominent Democrats and Democratic organizations rarely face similar pressure. This helps confirm Steele’s theory that attacks on black Republicans are not taken seriously by media.
“When the [Republican] Party tries to call attention to it basically the press just yawns,” Steele said.
Of course part of this has to do with something many, many black Americans insinuate privately, which is that people of color who associate with a party that many perceive as racist deserve what they get.
When asked about the GOP’s unflattering racial history, including the “Southern Strategy” that former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman formally apologized to the NAACP for, Smith ticked off the names of notable black Republicans throughout history, and listed the issues she says make the GOP a better choice for communities of color.
But she also said both parties “have a responsibility to stop the rhetoric and the political theater…I think they both have a lot to apologize for. They both misbehave.”
Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson’s labeling of conservative black Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as an “Uncle Tom” elicited headlines but no official calls for an apology and no denouncements from party leaders. (When reached for comment by the Beast, meanwhile, both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Campaign Committee strongly criticized the attacks on Smith.)
And when asked about his remarks by a white reporter, Thompson intimated he could use such language because he is black.
Of course this gets at the heart of why some attacks on black Republicans inspire a shrug. There is a sense among some it is merely an inter-community conflict, not a real one worthy of significant national discussion or debate, sort of like when siblings pick on each other.
However, meaningful debate can only happen when people are allowed to disagree without being denigrated, something the NAACP stressed when reached by the Beast for comment on this story.
Though officially a nonpartisan organization, the NAACP is known for supporting progressive civil rights causes, making them unlikely policy allies of Glo Smith.
Nevertheless, Hilary Shelton, the organization’s Washington bureau director, said that it’s “sad and unfortunate that this kind of thing happens in politics in this day and age as we as a society continue to aspire to civility. There really is no place for this kind of thing.”
He noted he has heard of stories of this kind of race-based vandalism targeting signs of black Democratic and Republican candidates.
“It’s just unacceptable regardless of who did it and who it’s being done to,” Shelton said. “We have a political process that is best served when we at least listen to and observe what every candidate stands for rather than this petty, childish approach of defacing signs and even evoking racial implications.”