Sunday, October 29, 2006
Say it ain't so, Junior
Well, I've been prompted by my good friend Kyle to comment on the local politics of my hometown, Memphis. What a mess.
Unless you've had your head stuck in a hole, you no doubt recognize the young Senate-candidate from Tennessee to the right, Harold Ford, Jr. He is one of the up-and-coming stars of the Democratic Party... smart, moderate, politcally savvy and, perhaps most importantly, African-American. As has been repeated ad nauseum in the last few weeks, if Harld Ford Jr. gets elected to the Senate, he will be the first black U.S. Senator from the South since Reconstruction. And he will be one from a state that elected Bush over their own hometown boy, Gore, in the last election. And he will be from Memphis, one of the few majority-African-American metropolitan cities of the South. In sum, this is a big deal.
Ford, Jr.'s Republican opponent, Bob Corker, recently ran a commercial that featured not-so-subtle allusions to Ford, Jr.'s attendance at a "Playboy Party" during the Superbowl in Tampa last year. (Ford, Jr. is single, good-looking and has responded to most of the mudslinging about this incident with the comment "I like football and I like girls." Hey, who can argue with that?!) The catch is that Corker's ad also featured a blonde, floosy-ish, white woman feigning a phone call and saying (in a breathy, sultry voice) "Harold, call me." And that's where things get messy.
The Democrats have (in my view, rightly) protested that Corker's ad exploits deep-seeded white Southern fear of miscegenation. Ford is a black man, the floosy in the commercial is a white woman, and white Tennesseans who see it will inevitably succumb to their unconscious revulsion at the prospect of a black man "knowing" a white woman, in the Biblical sense. I don't know if I can add anything to this basic critique of the ad... it seems like an obvious attempt to revive an age-old practice of demonizing black males by sexualizing them.
I do have this bit of local knowledge to contribute: Memphis politics is, and has always been, racially charged. A few little-known-outside-of-Tennessee facts: (1) metropolitan Memphis is actually divided into two political domains: Memphis "city" politics (which is primarily African-American) and Shelby County politics (which is almost exclusively white) (2) the state of Tennessee, for the most part, would happily cut off Memphis from its custody and hand it over to Mississippi or Arkansas, largely as a result of the widespread opinion within Tennessee that Memphis is the only "black" area of the state. (3) the Ford family is itself a legend, and by "legend" I don't necessary mean famous, but infamous.
Poor, poor, Junior. He's always been fighting an uphill battle. And despite the fact that I am turned off by much of his social conservatism, I actually like the guy. I lived in his Congressional district while I was in Memphis, served him coffee at the small neighborhood cafe where I worked 4 or 5 times a week, spoke with him in an informal setting often, saw him at bars and concerts in Midtown more often, and found him to be a generally accessible, responsible, extremely smart and generally likable representative. But it is just a fact that, in Memphis, the very mention of the family "Ford" causes many people (especially those of the white, suburban persuasion) to revert to their basest sentiments. (Google the Memphis Fords... much of it is not a pretty story.) Junior has risen to power in spite of his family in many ways, though it is certainly true that he never would have gained his current prominence without the family name (and political power) behind him.
I think it is true that the Corker campaign ad is exploiting a regoinal/cultural weakness in Tennessee, and that should be criticized. But what makes it more complicated is the way in which it is also exploiting a very local form of prejudice, one that NPR and CNN don't seem to have the time or energy to expose, but which would be far more illuminating (in my view) about Southern politics. These still-latent prejudices are what Junior will really be battling in the next election, which are the sorts of things that might sway otherwise "liberal" whites to vote against him.
Ahhhhh, the Delta. It ain't easy.