In a discussion over the weekend among the candidates for Shelby County Mayor, candidate David Lenoir was asked to respond to charges that his campaign had darkened an image of his opponent, Lee Harris, in a recent mailer. Lenoir denied that there had been any doctoring of the image and cast the blame for the topic onto Wendi Thomas, the Memphis journalist who most recently ran the MLK50: Justice in Journalism project. Specifically, Lenoir said, “This … was all cooked up by Wendi Thomas and you know how divisive she can be.” This response was wrong on so many levels, I feel a need to throw some shade on Lenoir (pun intended).
First, blaming a critical media is like blaming the doctor who delivers an unwanted diagnosis. It is rooted in denial of facts, or at least of the way things might be interpreted. Second, though media-bashing seems to be a wise political strategy these days, Lenoir did not actually bash the media — he targeted a single member of the media, one who is black and female and whose work regularly points out racial discrimination and disparity in our community. Several white journalists had pointed out the racial overtones of the Lenoir mailer before Thomas, yet the fault was solely laid at Thomas’s feet.
One reason other non-Thomas journalists have pointed out the racial overtones of the mailer is that the racial overtones of the mailer are kind of difficult to miss. I received one of these mailers, which feature a shadowy Harris seemingly juggling $100 bills amidst claims that he will not be a responsible steward of the county’s money, and immediately shook my head. (Disclosure: I’m white) That it traffics in stereotypes, seeking to elicit a response in the viewer rooted in beliefs about trustworthiness of African Americans, is difficult to deny. It could even be read to trigger fear that some sort of rapper is running for mayor to make it rain in the club of Shelby County after raising taxes to do so. That these stereotyping suggestions appear at all is troublesome, but that they appear next to a darkened image is egregious, in my opinion. Not surprising given the local and national history with race-baiting and dog-whistling in campaigns, but still egregious.
To deny that the mailer could be understood in this way has several effects. It denies to those who are offended the dignity of deciding for themselves what is offensive. It is as if Lenoir is suggesting that people not be allowed to trust their own feelings — again, feelings that are being felt by white and black Shelby Countians alike, though likely not in equal measure — and instead, trust that he meant no harm. It also displays either a high level of ignorance or disingenuousness about race in our community. Either Lenoir is truly surprised that the mailer might be offensive, in which case he is showing himself as woefully out of touch with the experience of the majority of Shelby County residents. Or he knows, even hopes, it could be understood this way, consciously or unconsciously, and will lead voters into the safety he is offering. To me, the scapegoating of Thomas, a favorite target of local whites in power, suggests that the latter explanation is in play.
Lenoir could have blamed the media, broadly, for misunderstanding him, but he chose to cite one black journalist. He also could have feigned surprise at the reaction, acknowledged error, claimed ignorance, apologized, maybe even committed to not sending any more copies of the mailer out. That may have helped the issue go away, but maybe that is not the goal. Perhaps the goal is to give some subset of voters the sense that his opponent is not Lee Harris, but is actually Wendi Thomas.
Of Thomas, Lenoir says, “we all know how divisive she can be.” Who is the “we” in that sentence? My guess: white people, specifically white people uncomfortable with criticism from the black community. That Thomas’s work is “divisive” is hard to dispute — it divides opinions because it unapologetically touches on the racial, gender, and socioeconomic divides in our community. Thomas did not create those divides, again, any more than a doctor creates symptoms. The divisions Lenoir ought to be concerned about are the attitudes, structures, and practices that give Thomas and others focused on local inequity so much to write about.
Of course, Lenoir is not literally running against Wendi Thomas, the person. Rather, he is running against ideas some might associate with her. It is instructive to consider what a campaign against those ideas might look like. Over the years, Thomas has repeatedly raised complex and often damning questions about the distribution and use of power in our community. These questions are often inconvenient to those in power, but they serve a crucial purpose of accountability. It is as though Thomas is sitting on the community’s shoulder, reminding us of things we ought to have been considering all along — things like diversity in media and in economic development, the crippling barriers generated by poverty, racial and gender discrimination faced regularly by individuals in all walks of life and across levels of income. Think of hers as a voice of conscience, critical and persistent, but rooted in the desire to make things better.
A symbolic campaign against “Wendi Thomas” is a campaign against criticism and a campaign against change from a status quo that benefits Shelby County residents unevenly. It is a campaign against learning from mistakes, against acknowledging the feelings of others, against critical self-examination, against acknowledging the possibility that the community might look different — and less flattering — from a different perspective, all things that we could use more of. And, of course, it is a campaign against a black voice for black empowerment, a black voice that dares to question the current dispensation. And to be clear, Thomas has never been critical solely of white leaders; her voice can be inconvenient for anyone in power. It is just that political, and particularly economic, power continues to be disproportionately wielded by whites in Shelby County.
The shading of an image of an African American opponent in a county mayoral race reflects poor judgment or callous disregard of others’ feelings. An individual standing for election as the county’s executive should expect questions on the topic and either defend the decision or acknowledge a mistake. Instead, Lenoir opted to pass the blame on to a Shelby County citizen who has been willing to sit on the shoulders of our community and make noise. Our community could use more such citizens.
Daniel Kiel is a Professor of Law at the University of Memphis, a recipient of the University's Martin Luther King Human Rights Award and a widely published author, especially on the subject of race relations