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Attack Ads Are Darkening the Skin Tone of Black Candidates

While those responsible claim innocent technical problems, the larger pattern is consistent. So is the effect: heightened white racial anxieties.
October 19, 2022
Attack Ads Are Darkening the Skin Tone of Black Candidates
Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes (Composite / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

It’s working. Once ahead in the polls, Democrat Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, is now trailing Republican incumbent Ron Johnson in the state’s race for U.S. Senate, a shift also seen recently in other important races. One factor is an onslaught of negative messaging that seeks to paint Barnes as a crime-loving radical. A key word here is “paint.”

One of the ads, from the National Republican Senate Committee, ends with a shot that brands Barnes, who is black, as “different” and “dangerous” as it pictures him alongside three congresswomen of color who are members of “The Squad,” none of whom has campaigned with him. For good measure, the state Republican party sent out a mailer in which the color of Barnes’s skin has clearly been darkened. Here’s a side-by-side comparison that appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

A side-by-side comparison published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

A similar alteration recently happened with Stacey Abrams, who is facing off against Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp. His campaign team took an image of Abrams from an ad that she had run and made her complexion noticeably darker. Here’s a screenshot of a side-by-side that ran on WXIA-TV in Atlanta:

A side-by-side comparison that that was aired on WXIA-TV in Atlanta and featured in a story on 11Alive.

Kemp himself used a photo of Abrams in which her skin appears to have been darkened in a September 26 tweet:

Using unflattering images of one’s opponents has been a feature of campaigns since time immemorial. As WXIA reporter Doug Richards observed, “No politician worth their salt will make a campaign ad that makes their opponents look good. But making them look bad can be tricky, especially if the opponents are of two different races.”

And trying to make them look bad by actually darkening the color of their skin? Well, that can be especially tricky.

“When you’re changing skin tone,” mused Andra Gillespie, an Emory political science professor, in the WXIA report, “there’s really no way around pinpointing the racial intent of what’s happening.”

But the purveyors of this technique are not noticeably chagrined. Tate Mitchell, a spokesperson for Kemp’s campaign, responded to my email query with a statement calling complaints over the images “a desperate tactic by a desperate campaign.” He said the “filters and text overlay” used in Kemp’s TV ads “are used uniformly with multiple people and across multiple images. Any insinuation to the contrary is completely ridiculous.”

Similarly, Ben Voelkel, a senior adviser to Johnson, called it “absurd” to think that the darkening of Barnes’s skin by these Republican backers of his campaign was somehow racist. He said people were complaining about it because they can’t defend the “disastrous results of their radical left policies.” And Johnson, who in a debate last Thursday accused Barnes of having “turned against America,” clucked that those making a fuss about this darkening were playing “the race card” in an effort to distract voters from the Democrats’ record.

Neither Barnes nor his campaign have publicly commented on the mailer with the altered image, and they declined my invitation to do so. That’s how intent they are on playing “the race card” for their own wicked political ends.

A quick Google search suggests this has happened quite a bit: Modern political campaigns, for some reason—like, perhaps, racism—sometimes present images of candidates of color that have been altered to make their skin look darker. Sometimes it’s so subtle it’s not even noticed—except subliminally.

A study published in late 2015 in the research journal Public Opinion Quarterly found that the campaign of John McCain used images in the 2008 election that manipulated Barack Obama’s complexion “in ways that are difficult to detect.” The authors, from Stanford University, cited studies showing that darker skin and “Afrocentric” facial features trigger “the part of the brain associated with fear” in whites and that even minor darkness manipulation is “sufficient to activate the most negative stereotypes about blacks.”

According to their analysis of more than 500 still images from 126 ads that aired between July 1 and November 2, 2008, the darker images of Obama “were more frequent in negative ads—especially those linking Obama to crime—which aired more frequently as Election Day approached.” Meantime, “the McCain campaign’s own images of McCain grew on average lighter over time.”

In 2020, the re-election campaign of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, ran an ad that darkened the skin of his Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison, who is black. T.W. Arrighi, a spokesperson for Graham campaign, told CNN that an effect was used on the image but said past Facebook ads had applied the same effect to Graham’s face. Arrighi seized the opportunity to comment provided by this controversy to say: “It’s sad that detractors are making up fake accusations about this graphic—[which is] intended to highlight Jaime Harrison’s support from Kathy Griffin, a liberal actress who once posed with a fake severed head of Donald Trump.”

Ah, yes, the ad was meant to get to the campaign’s real issues. Graham won by a ten-point margin.

That same year, U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, a Texas Democrat who is black, accused his Republican opponent, Genevieve Collins, of digitally darkening his skin in a campaign mailer. Collins’s campaign denied it. The mailer, as one news story described it, showed Allred “holding a microphone while looters ravage a city engulfed in flames in the background.” Allred kept his House seat.

In the two pivotal races for Georgia U.S. Senate seats decided in January 2021, both Republican candidates were accused of doctoring photos of their Democratic rivals with racist intent. The campaign of incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler ran an ad in which the skin of Democrat Raphael Warnock, who is black, has clearly been darkened. It actually used some of the same images as in another Loeffler ad in which this darkening did not occur. The campaign spent more than ten times as much money airing the ad with the darkened images as it did to boost the ad with normal coloration. It did not respond to requests for comment from Slate and Yahoo! News.

Meanwhile, the campaign of Georgia Republican Sen. David Perdue had to yank an ad that showed his Democratic challenger, Jon Ossoff, with an enlarged nose. The Perdue campaign blamed “the graphic design process handled by an outside vendor,” adding, “Anybody who implies that this was anything other than an inadvertent error is intentionally misrepresenting Senator Perdue’s strong and consistent record of standing firmly against anti-Semitism and all forms of hate.”

Ossoff was unpersuaded. “Senator, literally no one believes your excuses,” he tweeted. “This is the oldest, most obvious, least original anti-Semitic trope in history.”

Both Warnock and Ossoff won. Warnock is now facing an inexplicably close challenge from Herschel Walker, who is also black.

Last November, in a race for mayor of Atlanta, an outside group ran an ad that appeared to add dark shadows to the face of candidate Andre Dickens, who called it, pun intended, a “shady tactic.” His opponent, Felicia Moore, said she had nothing to do with the ad, but faulted Dickens for fundraising off of it. Both Dickens and Moore are black. Dickens won the election.

There’s also darkening by proxy. In August, a conservative super PAC ran an attack ad against Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker in support of his Republican challenger, Darren Bailey. The ad pictured Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, looking darker than she does in the video that the image was pulled from. The super PAC, which calls itself People Who Play By the Rules, has received at least $26 million so far this year from billionaire GOP financier Richard Uihlein. The group is headed by conservative activist Dan Proft, who called Lightfoot’s allegation that it had something to do with making her darker “insane”—and, of course, an effort “to misdirect attention away from” from her own sorry record of coddling “repeat, violent predators.”

Proft continued: “The contention is completely untrue and patently absurd. We did nothing to her pigmentation just as we did nothing to [the] pigmentation of our pasty blowhard of a governor.” An article by NBC News quoted ad-makers who disagreed whether the darkening of Lightfoot was deliberate or accidental.

Representing the latter position was GOP campaign ad guru Fred Davis, who said:

That was a very dramatic darkening, but I bet you it was nothing but color correction. Anybody that’s a professional in our business—that’s the last thing you would do is make somebody’s skin darker. That’s just a no-no. I don’t even know who did it. It’s just not true, unless they’re just the sleaziest people on the block. I bet they’re not.

It’s likely that Davis could find takers for that bet. Here are the images, from the NBC report:

A side-by-side comparison that appeared in an NBC News story.

Just a few short years ago, in 2006, Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia apologized profusely and apparently sincerely for referring to an Indian American volunteer snoop for his Democratic opponent as “Macaca or whatever his name is.” Quoth Allen: “It was a mistake, it was wrong, and it was hurtful to people.”

In 2019, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg drew flak and issued a mea culpa for saying that fellow presidential aspirant Cory Booker was “well spoken,” a comment some criticized for appearing to suggest it is unusual for black people to be articulate.

The other day, in a post to his social media platform, Truth Social, Donald Trump referred to his former secretary of transportation, Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan and is married to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as the “China loving . . . Coco Chow!” from whom the craven McConnell needed to seek “advise.” There was no apology, no complaint from McConnell, and—of course—no consequences for Trump. Nobody even fixed his botching of the word “advice.”

Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, speaking at a Trump rally in Nevada on October 8, exactly one month before the midterm elections, blamed crime on people with black skin, saying of Democrats: “They are not soft on crime. They want crime. They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparation because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”

The crowd cheered. Other Republicans responded with what USA Today called “a collective shrug,” either by keeping silent or denying Tuberville’s words were racist. (Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska suggested his congressional colleague could have reworded his statement to be “more polite,” but appeared to agree with the substance of Tuberville’s position on the “crime problem in our country.”)

Clearly, we have entered a different era when it comes to casual expressions of racism in the political sphere. Crude appeals to bigotry may or not get candidates elected, but they will no longer get them in hot water. That’s not progress.

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders, former editor and now editor-at-large of The Progressive, is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.