The Agenda

Racist TV Ad?

I realize that people will call me an imbecile for writing this post, but I’m very skeptical about Jacob Bernstein’s assertion that Harold Ford Jr. was subject to “racially motivated campaign ads” in Tennessee. The ad that caused consternation, if I recall correctly, is the Scott Howell ad you’ll find below.

The contention, as I understand it, is that the young white woman who met Harold at the “Playboy party” is meant to evoke some deeply ingrained Southern dread at the prospect of miscegenation. Or, as more sophisticated observers suggested at the time, perhaps it was designed to de-motivate African American women. It’s worth noting that virtually all those who characterized the ad as racist supported Ford over Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga condemned as a RINO in the Republican primary for his moderate stances on a number of issues. In contrast, right-of-center voices were among those who most vociferously condemned Trent Lott for his praise of Strom Thurmond’s segregationist 1948 presidential campaign.

Another lens for understanding the ad is that we live in a diverse society, in which people often date outside of their Census classification. I was honestly puzzled when I first saw the ad. Would it have been less racist if the woman in question were African American? Given that Ford has dated many women who are not African American, one wonders if it would have sent a different, subtler signal: that it is only acceptable for African American men in prominent roles to have African American partners. This is, to be sure, a very pervasive idea. But it is not unproblematic.

Bernstein writes:

For another, a month before his defeat, the RNC put out a now-infamous commercial featuring an actress who claimed to have met Ford at a party at the Playboy Mansion. “Call me,” she mouths at the end. The ad smacked of racism—implying that he was somehow unfit for office because he was a womanizer who liked white girls. (In point of fact, the ad was also deceptive; Ford is said to have been fairly indifferent to race where the women in his life are concerned. He was formerly engaged to a black woman.) Even though the ad was vilified, it did its damage.

The “Playboy party” reference was a reference to a Super Bowl party sponsored by Playboy, and Ford enthusiastically acknowledged that he attended. (“I like girls,” he memorably said at the time.) Should the ad have portrayed a panoply of women, demographically balanced to reflect the composition of the women Ford has pursued? One assumes that this information wasn’t available. Moreover, focusing exclusively on Ford’s socializing would have crowded out references to Ford’s views on a range of other issues, highlighted in the ad through sarcastic gags.

In light of the fact that Ford has reversed his pro-life stance and has run a pseudo-campaign in New York that has been almost universally regarded as laughable, it’s not clear that the ad’s central point — that Ford is a trivial, unserious candidate — had no basis in fact. 

One can imagine an article that offered a different take on how the interracial relationships of African American men are received in public life, with references to perceptions of Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings. A number of observers have suggested that Barack Obama’s political success derives in part from the fact Michelle Obama, from a family with roots in Chicago’s South Side and the South, helped ground him in a particular political and cultural community, despite his cosmopolitan background. 

This is, of course, a silly debate. But when an ad like this is characterized as racist, it trivializes actual racism. One example of actual racism is the following, from a 2000 paper by Edward Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote.

Does the economic model of optimal punishment explain the variation in the sentencing of murderers? As the model predicts, we find that murderers with a high expected probability of recidivism receive longer sentences. Sentences are longest in murder types where apprehension rates are low, and where deterrence elasticities appear to be high. However, sentences respond to victim characteristics in a way that is hard to reconcile with optimal punishment. In particular, victim characteristics are important determinants of sentencing among vehicular homicides, where victims are basically random and where the optimal punishment model predicts that victim characteristics should be ignored. Among vehicular homicides, drivers who kill women get 56 percent longer sentences. Drivers who kill blacks get 53 percent shorter sentences.

More broadly, criminals who murder African Americans receive shorter sentences than those who murder non-blacks, after correcting for other victim characteristics. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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