The Southern Strategy was one of my earliest introductions to politics. In 1988, when I was 12, I remember seeing television ads about a man named Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman in Maryland after leaving a Massachusetts prison for a weekend furlough.
Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was running for president, was using the incident to paint his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, as weak on crime.
Even to this day, I keenly remember those ads. Horton came to symbolize not just the actions of that one man, but of all Black people.
It hurt me deeply that my race would be used as a weapon used to frighten people into believing my very existence posed a danger to society. I already had a hard time fitting in at the advanced classes at my Illinois middle school because of my color -- I was constantly viewed with suspicion and as less than -- but to be viewed as an actual threat cut much deeper.
A few years later, I remember watching a nightly news segment on Lee Atwater, the infamous political strategist who created the Southern Strategy. Before he died, Atwater apologized to Dukakis for the “naked cruelty” of the former’s pledge to “make Willie Horton [Dukakis’] running mate.”
Atwater, of course, firmly denied he was a racist. I never believed his apology as I could not understand how he chose to build his career on dog-whistle politics without believing his actions were somehow justified. The Southern Strategy proved to be a powerful tool that politicians use to demonize people they see as not-quite American as "other."
This wink-and-nod playbook has been used far too many times on issues related to race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and, most recently, gender identity. It needs to stop.
I was rather disappointed, but sadly not surprised, that Rep. Rob Wittman's newest political ads tie his opponent Qasim Rashid to terrorism. It is hard to believe this is a causal coincidence given Rashid is a practicing Muslim who immigrated from Pakistan.
Religion should not be used as a shield for intolerance or to incite hatred for those whose beliefs differ from our own. Even a cursory review of United States history should remind Christians our nation was founded on the principle of religious liberty as many early white settlers escaped Europe to avoid religious persecution.
Rashid’s faith is not on the ballot, nor should it be the centerpiece of an attack ad. He has already been the target of right-wing extremists, starting with his candidacy for Virginia state Senate District 28. Wittman’s ads are playing into dangerous stereotypes that should have been abandoned by now.
Rashid is no Willie Horton, nor should he be tainted by the actions of a few people who claim to be Muslims but who are instead following the wrong path.
Politics is a contest of ideas. Wittman must be running low on fresh ideas that excite his base if he is appealing to their nativist instincts. While I disagree with his politics, I expected more from my congressman. I honestly thought Wittman was better than this. I now know otherwise.
A Montclair resident, Deshundra Jefferson represents the 1st Congressional District as a member of the Central Committee for the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA).