Race and politics: A race to the bottom in NH
Some of my good friends call me “Wholesome” and I don’t complain. There’s no secret that I idealize my small-town New Hampshire upbringing, where the farm, the woods, and the baseball field were my primary occupations after school. Eating porridge around the breakfast table as a family, my father would read us excerpts from The Book of Virtues, The Moral Compass, and other wholesome tomes – a kind of daily fortification against juvenile temptations.
Although circumstances afforded us little in the way of racial awareness – we were all white to begin with – my parents and teachers made a good-faith effort to broaden our social horizons through literature, history, and art. There was certainly no tolerance for discrimination, racial or otherwise, so far as I could tell.
In high school, my fellow students and I across the ConVal District committed to respecting ourselves and others by avoiding materials “that promote and glorify hate, violence, intolerance, and racism.”
I’m sure we were not as pure as the Student Handbook instructed, but we got by. The same cannot be said of our politicians.
Enter the 2014 mid-term elections in New Hampshire.
For ConVal students and their families in my old State Senate District 9, which stretches from Bedford to Richmond, New Hampshire, October brought a most unwelcome surprise: a political mailer reminiscent of the Jim Crow South – a far cry from the values of tolerance and respect we were taught in school.
The glossy mailer, issued by NH State Senator Andy Sanborn against his opponent, Lee Nyquist, depicts a smiling Mr. Nyquist side by side with a threatening dark-skinned man in a hoodie with a semi-automatic handgun and bags of cocaine super-imposed. The man is identified in bold letters as “cocaine dealer and would-be cop killer Jesus Ramos.” On the back, he is described again as “a drug dealing, would-be cop-killer-scum bag.”
Although it is just one in a crowded field of negative attacks, this mailer – along with similar content released by other campaigns depicting a battered woman and NH’s single black death-row inmate, Michael Addison – crosses a line that even the most self-serving politician should never cross.
Fear is an instinctive part of human life. Many of our most common fears are grounded in a healthy impulse to preserve human life, our own and others. The time I got charged by the bull taught me fear of the right kind, and I never got charged again.
But some fears are unnatural and wrong, especially when we live in community with other human beings.
When we teach people to fear other members of society – especially entire groups, and especially when the reason to fear has little grounding in truth – we tear communities apart. The rupture may begin quietly and imperceptibly at first, but over time it can have deadly consequences.
Sen. Sanborn’s mailer is not only a miscarriage of the truth – the photo is not of Jesus Ramos, whose 1979 conviction for aggravated assault was reversed by the NH Supreme Court – but an attempt to stoke fear among white voters through the use of racial stereotypes. For the voters in my old State Senate district, more than 95 percent of whom are white, such stereotypes are difficult to refute because of the extremely narrow scope of human interactions across the color line.
The signals in the mailer could not be more clear: a glaring anonymous dark-skinned man wearing a hoodie; a semi-automatic weapon and bags of drugs implying violent crime; unsubstantiated claims about the former defendant’s “cop-killing” intentions and his onetime lawyer’s desire to subvert justice.
These signals place Sen. Sanborn in a long and unseemly tradition of opportunistic politicians trading fear for votes. It is a tradition most often associated with the Jim Crow South.
In one tragic example, Georgia’s race-baiting gubernatorial campaign of 1906 featured numerous media accounts of black men sexually assaulting white women. Although nearly every account was false, the campaign had the intended effect of animating white hostility toward the black community at large. In the Atlanta Riot that followed, an angry white mob of 10,000 men and boys rampaged for several days, killing dozens of African Americans.
Politically-motivated race-baiting does not end there. From future President Richard Nixon’s 1960s “Southern Strategy” capitalizing on white resentment of school desegregation, to President Reagan’s skillful use of the “welfare queen” motif, to present-day accusations that President Obama is “the food stamp president” or claims that he is a non-American Muslim, politicians have repeatedly shown themselves willing and able to play on racial tensions for political gain.
New Hampshire is not the place and 2014 is not the year for such unsavory practices. They can have no place in politics today.
Rather than leading a race to the bottom of the dungheap, elected leaders like Sen. Sanborn should be setting an example of integrity and respect for our youth. If he cannot meet the standard of student conduct prescribed by the very schools he represents, is he fit to serve in public office?
It’s time the voters sent Sen. Sanborn back to school.