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Mandela Barnes shows grace and poise in the face of racist attack ads
The lieutenant governor is a proud product of Milwaukee, and he and his city are facing the same kind of dog-whistle insults from Republicans in this campaign.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Guest column by Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC).
Halloween is one of my favorite holidays of the year, and I love it even more when it’s right before an election. Democracy, costumes, and candy, who doesn’t love that?! This year, though, the scariest parts of Halloween were the vile and racist ads against Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes in his run for U.S, Senate, as well as the nightmare this state and country would be under Republican policies.
This Halloween’s real monsters were Republicans who tried to strip Mandela of his humanity and paint him as the boogeyman. We’ve seen this racist trope in campaigns before. The Willie Horton ads in 1988. If you have access to any device, you’ve probably seen the racist ads against Mandela – stoking fears and weaponizing the trauma in Kenosha. A lot of us saw this coming over a year ago, but I’m still blown away by the sheer volume of it all. You sometimes can’t escape.
Mandela has handled this all with grace and poise. Something I – and I’m sure many of us – couldn’t do. Yet some say he wasn’t hitting back hard enough or how these ads are something that Wisconsin has never seen before. These criticisms are unfair and misguided, to say the least. Some of these same people were feeding into the whisper campaign in the primary about electability. Some people (and candidates) didn’t realize they started the Willie Horton messaging that now the GOP has run with.
If you know Mandela, you know how kind and down to earth he is. I mean, who can make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and have a positive attitude in an ad, while Republicans put out constant attack ads? It says a lot of who Mandela is in the face of real challenges.
In one of his first campaign ads, Mandela says “If we want to change Washington, we gotta change the people we send there.” Mandela has remained focused on connecting with voters and making the case. Others however, want to criticize how he has handled all of this. People who never have and never will experience racism criticize his response to it. It is incredibly insulting and infuriating.
As a Black woman, I know what it means to defend yourself or speak out against racism. And yet somehow, you end up being the “problem” or the “angry Black woman.” I know that scenario well, and it hurts every time. So, when I hear these criticisms, I feel for Mandela. It’s not easy having your humanity stripped from you from all sides, and then still have to be positive.
I want people to think about and remember this Black man’s humanity. He has taken on a tremendous battle, because he believes we all deserve better than Ron Johnson. Now is not the time to be divisive. “Allies” need to understand what Republican policies will do to our state and our communities. I know some allies are wrestling with how to show up since the protests in the summer of 2020. Your journey with allyship will never end. You will never reach the final level and get a gold star. You will constantly be learning, and unlearning. Now is another test of your allyship.
I can’t help but to think about the dog whistles in this race, and the dog whistles about the city of Milwaukee. Milwaukee is often painted as those people or just full of “murder and mayhem” as a former lawmaker put it.
The way Milwaukee is talked about feels very familiar to the ways people talk about Mandela. Mandela is a proud product of Milwaukee – and we are proud of him. It’s also particularly insulting to make these types of comments as Barnes talks about being impacted by gun violence and losing friends. Mandela has seen the best and worst of Milwaukee, and is proud of his roots. We are excited to have a candidate that resonates with so many of us, not just in the Black community.
Whether you are on the North side of Milwaukee or in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, you can see yourself and your issues reflected in his campaign. Farmers, teachers, union members, organizers and more all see themselves in his campaign, yet there’s still a little push back and skepticism. I can’t help but wonder, is it racism? Of course it is.
It’s no secret that sometimes candidates don’t always excite our community, and yet we are good team players and we vote. We play the long game. Candidates treat us as mere votes at times. Mandela’s campaign has been refreshing, impressive, and historic. It’s time for other people to be good team players. Understand your biases.
At the rally at North Division High School in Milwaukee this past weekend where Barack Obama spoke along with Wisconsin’s Democratic ticket, Congresswoman Gwen Moore said “In case y'all didn’t know, Mandela is Black…Can he win?” Our whole BLOC team cheered! She named it! She called it out! It felt validating for it to be finally named. President Obama alluded to it as well.
We need all hands on deck. We need to be passionate and excited about electing our state’s first Black Senator. All eyes are on Wisconsin. The country is watching. We have a choice to make. Our state motto is “Forward,” but I guarantee reelecting Ron Johnson will move Wisconsin backwards.
I leave you with more words from the Congresswoman’s speech from Saturday: “Now is not the time to give up, now is not the time to give in, now is not the time to give out. If you do any getting out, get out and vote.”
Simple as that.
Angela Lang was born and raised in the heart of Milwaukee. She has an extensive background in community organizing. In the past, Angela served as both an organizer and State Council Director for the Service Employees International Union, working on such campaigns as the Fight for 15. Before founding BLOC, Angela was the Political Director with For Our Future Wisconsin. She is a graduate of Emerge Wisconsin. She currently is the Vice President of the ACLU of Wisconsin Board and sits on the board for Diverse and Resilient, a non profit organization that supports the LGBTQ community in Wisconsin.
Angela is motivated by making substantial and transformative change in her community while developing young, local leaders of color. Her journey in organizing hasn't always been easy, but through it all she has remained a fierce advocate for securing more seats at the table for those who represent the New American Majority.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.