When Identity Politics Backfire

This week the Democratic primary in the mostly African-American 9th Congressional District in Memphis, Tennessee made national headlines. Much of the coverage was focused on the aggressive ads African American challenger Nikki Tinker ran against incumbent Steve Cohen. One of the ads associated Cohen, who is white and Jewish, with the Ku Klux Klan; the other expressed indignation that Cohen was in “our churches, clapping his hands and tapping his feet” while voting against school prayer. But Tinker's gambit failed, and in last night's election, Cohen trounced her with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

Media coverage of Tinker's identity-based ads showed how people across the country were shocked by one candidate's attempt to cast the other as an outsider not by tying him to Hamas or Fidel Castro but to the Ku Klux Klan. But the novelty of a black politician using wedge identity politics against a white Jewish opponent obscures the fact that this kind of politics is extremely common. There exists a bizarre idea that somehow, because of racism, black people should be immune to the kind of petty clannishness that afflicts other human beings, and it is therefore even more reprehensible when they aren’t. But there really isn't much difference between what Tinker did in Tennessee's 9th District and what Republicans do every year. The Tinker campaign’s attempt to argue that only a black candidate could represent a majority-black district isn’t so different from John McCain’s invocation of himself as “the American president Americans have been waiting for.”

But while left-leaning voices have been calling out the identity politics of the McCain campaign, people on both the left and the right were outraged by Tinker's identity-based ads. Josh Marshall accurately described Tinker’s statements as “Jew-baiting,” while conservatives used the race as an opportunity to argue that the Democratic Party was itself racist, and to demand Barack Obama (who is bearing a lot of weight these days, between being a presidential candidate and fielding requests that he respond to all foolishness perpetuated by any black person in America) intervene. Erick Ericson at Redstate said the race exposed “the deep, deep racial divisions within the party of Jim Crow.” On Fox News, Hannity and Colmes asked whether presidential candidate Barack Obama was “ignoring a race war” in the Democratic Party. Even though painting one’s opponent as a frightening cultural outsider is a common Republican tactic, the right was nonetheless outraged when such an approach was applied by a black candidate toward a white one. Folks on the left have been less selective in their condemnation of dog-whistle politics.

Fox's Hannity and Colmes invited the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson onto the show to say what white right-wing pundits would feel less comfortable saying. Peterson blamed the entire black community of the 9th District, declaring that “most blacks” in Memphis are “so racist that they don't even realize that white Americans have moved on, and so whenever there is a campaign like this, such as this, they always use racism in order to intimidate white Americans.” Hours later, the virulently racist black community of Memphis strapped on their black berets and, clutching copies of Soul on Ice, handed Cohen a landslide win with 79 percent of the vote to Tinker’s 19 percent. She got a larger share of the vote in 2006, running against 13 other people.

What made Tinker’s second ad, denouncing Cohen for being in “our” churches, particularly absurd was the idea that Cohen shouldn't be there. Not only should Cohen be in churches in his district, he should be hanging out in barbershops, patronizing restaurants, visiting schools, and basically doing what he can to get to know his constituents better. If Cohen wasn't visible in his district, he would be a poor representative.

It was clear that Tinker didn’t really have much to run on against Cohen, other than black anxiety about disenfranchisement. That's a feeling that shouldn't be dismissed -- black folks have fought hard for the right to represent themselves, and we shouldn’t pretend that races where a black candidate can deploy such techniques are common. The issue is whether Tinker's race had anything to do with her ability to represent black interests. The answer would appear to be no. So she took a page out of the Republican playbook and appealed to the worst of human instincts -- attempting to paint her opponent as a dangerous cultural outsider because of his association with whiteness.

This identity-based tactic isn't only used when a black and a white candidate are locked in a heated race -- it can be deployed even when there's no difference in the racial background of the candidates. If you're not convinced just Mayor Corey Booker of Newark, New Jersey about his experience running against incumbent Sharpe James, who told Booker, “You have to learn to be an African-American, and we don’t have time to teach you.” And in Louisiana and Mississippi the GOP recently tried its best to tie white candidates Don Cazayoux and Travis Childers to Barack Obama and Reverend Jeremiah Wright in order to paint them as cultural outsiders (as with Booker, the races of the candidates themselves were less important than their racial "associations"). In that case, it made national news because it had implications for congressional races this fall should Obama be at the top of the ticket. In the case of Tennessee's 9th District, it's mostly national news because Americans aren't really used to seeing a cultural association with whiteness as an electoral liability. It's usually the other way around.

What's really remarkable about Nikki Tinker's racist campaign is that it's not remarkable at all. It's the typical culture-war stuff -- just from a black perspective. But black or white, the story is always the same. This kind of politics is a hustle, wherein politicians use their cultural currency to distract from issues of substance. These identity-exploiting candidates use whatever connection to a community they have to appeal to voters' sense of cultural familiarity, which serves to obscure the candidates' competence or fitness for office. And as the success of the Republican Party has shown, it can be a remarkably effective campaign tactic.

But this time, it didn’t work. On Thursday night Tinker was cooling her heels at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club in downtown Memphis while, across town, Cohen addressed a cheering victory party. The residents of the 9th District resoundingly rejected one candidate’s attempt to paint the other as a cultural outsider and went with the one that best represented their interests.

It just might be that kind of year.

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