Racial messages—both implicit, through coded terms and imagery, and explicit—are all too common in our political discourse and particularly in our political campaigns. – Campaign Legal Center (CLC)
Black Westchester received several calls from voters of color in the 16th Congressional District questioning the motive of Westchester County Legislator Vedat Gashi’s distribution of campaign material that features a photo of Congressman Jamaal Bowman with what appears to be a noticeably darker skin tone. Rep Bomwan, who is Black, Progressive and the first African-American to be elected to serve as Congressman in CD-16, unseated Rep. Eliot Engel – who served as the district’s congressman for 31 years – in the 2020 Democratic primary.
The mailer in question was also the source of a City & State Magazine August 8 article written by Sahalie Donaldson; The Gashi campaign’s mailer, which was sent out to households in the northern Bronx and southern Westchester County district late last week, included a set of bullet points decrying Bowman’s congressional record and a photo that appears darker than its original version. The picture is poorly lit – so much so Bowman’s features are almost imperceptible. Contrasted against the representative’s own mailer – a well-lit photo of Bowman smiling and looking off into the distance set under the words “peace and love,” the presentation is particularly stark. The other side of Gashi’s mailer features a bright and colorful portrait of the Westchester County legislator’s family.
“To be Black in America is to deal with multiple forms of racism on a consistent basis. This is one of them,” Bowman shared with Black Westchester. “There is an ugly history behind facial distortion to spread hate and disdain for political purposes. This is why voters were angered. This is also why we introduced the African American History Act and the resolution to fight hate and antisemitism. The -isms and -phobias in America are killing us and stopping us from reaching our potential as a country. We need to be better educated to stop the hate that’s eating our country and democracy alive.”
I received the mailer in the mail Monday afternoon as well. As someone who lays out the newspaper every month, I could not help but to question the notable difference in graphics on the front and back of Gashi’s mailer. The front bright, vivid, vibrant and vivacious portrait of Gashi and his family while the b-side of the mailer was a darkened, dispirited and disheartened display of Congressman Bowman over a brown background that contrast with the colorful background of Gashi on the front.
I delayed my response, wanted to wrap my head around it to make sure I wasn’t making too much of the very visible contrast in the two sides of the mailer. Then I read Rafeal Shimunov’s tweet, questioning the motive of the mailer. Shimunov is the guest host of the radio show What’s Going On on WBAI 99.5FM that airs Wednesday mornings. Shimunov is on the Executive Board + Jews of Color caucus member @JFREJNYC (Jews For Racial Economic Justice) and co-founder of The Jewish Vote.
He tweeted: Hey Twitter, did Congressional candidate @LegislatorGashi darken the skin or progressive Congressman @JamaalBowmanNY or nah? #NY16
After reading Rafeal Shimunov’s tweet and the City & State Magazine article, it became abundantly clear that wasn’t just the Editor-In-Chief of Black Westchester just making everything about race as our critics sometimes accuse us of when they don’t like what we write. But after seeing others question the motive of Gashi’s mailer, I was even more empowered and felt a responsibility to write this editorial and shine a spotlight on these actions.
Shimunov wasn’t the only tweet that’s questioned the mailer. Other tweets included Jorge L/ Vasquez, Jr., @JorgeVasquezNYC, a civil rights attorney and advocate from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, who tweeted: I saw a mailer from @LegislatorGashi & I hope his team didn’t purposely darken a picture of @JamaalBowmanNY & coincidentally write the congressman’s name in Black bold letters above white letters that read “The Wrong Priorities.”
Kamran Saliani @KamranSaliani, an IRV-District 31 Leader tweeted; As a Democratic District Leader in Westchester, I am appalled and disgusted at the racist tactics by @LegislatorGashi against @JamaalBowmanNY. It’s disgusting to see anyone, especially a fellow Democrat, stoop to such low levels. Disgusting.
What alarmed me the most after reading the mailer was with the current polarized political climate we are in where the GOP is using racial fear mongering nationwide and doing everything to strip us of our rights and destroy democracy, to have a Democrat use the same tactics with the political discourse in campaigns against another Democrat, or within the societal and cultural climate created by such practice is appalling to say the least. But we should not be surprised because this is not new in this country, so why wouldn’t it spill out in this county. The phenomenon involving the activity of political actors exploiting the issue of race to forward an agenda. Not to prove to voters you are the best candidate but to discredit or disparage candidates of color to win an election. Sahalie Donaldson also spoke to this in her City & State Magazine article.
Research indicates that when voters are learning about a non-white candidates’ personal background, subtle changes in their skin complexion can have an effect on how they perceive that candidate. And racial messages – whether they be implicit or explicit – have long been present in political campaigns.
In 2020, Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham came under fire for sharing a digitally altered image of his opponent Jamie Harrison in a campaign ad. Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler ran a Facebook ad in 2021 that visibly darkened the skin of her challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock. And a study published in 2015 found that darkened images of former President Barack Obama were often tied to negative ads run by then-Republican nominee John McCain’s campaign during the 2008 presidential election. In New York, Rep. Yvette Clarke’s reelection campaign sparked backlash after her progressive challenger Adem Bunkeddaeko accused her of sending out mail that also darkened his skin in 2020. Clarke, who is also Black, denied the charge.
Gashi, who came to the U.S. as a refugee when his parents fled Kosovo, has positioned himself as a moderate alternative to Bowman and touted what he describes as his ability to bridge differences within the Democratic Party, denies the accusations.
“This is just another example of how the incumbent refuses to be held accountable for his failed record and prefers to spread lies instead,” Gashi’s campaign manager Daniel Johnson said in a statement to City & State. “Rather than playing petty and performative politics, Vedat is focused on doing everything he can to help the families of the Bronx and Westchester.”
This comes after the recent redistricting that included Special Master Jonathan Cervas carving up NY Congressional and State Senate seats, which could possibly weaken both the Black Vote and Black Representation in Congress, in a time where the Democrats are hanging on to a slim majority heading into the midterm elections.
Donaldson points out in her City & State article, according to data from the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center, the new district is 20.5% Black – a 9 percentage point decrease from the previous district. White residents make up 40% of the new district, up from 33%, and Hispanics make up 29% and Asians 7%.
Basil Smikle, a Black political strategist and former executive director of the state Democratic Party, told City & State that candidates have used skin tones in ads to scare white voters for years in hopes of mobilizing them against Black candidates. On the flip side, magazines and media entities have also long been guilty of lightening Black skin tones.
“Both of those extremes – the darkening and the lightening – are meant to feed into stereotypes and caricatures of Black people,” he said.
While the Gashi campaign mailer might not rise to the level of some of the more egregious examples, his campaign declined to comment on why that particular image was the one they selected even if it wasn’t digitally altered like they say.
“Any candidate and consultant should be mindful of the racial history and sensitivity to skin tones and the stereotypes behind that,” Smikle said. “There’s no place for this in our political dialogue. I don’t care whether you’re Democrat or Republican – any consultant or candidate should do better at understanding the racial political sensitives to skin tone.”
This comes after Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano – who has publicly endorsed Gashi – commented that Congressman Jamaal Bowman should be arrested for voting No on Infrastructure Bill on the “Reisman-Richter Report” talk radio show on WVOX in February. The comment angered many community leaders and Mayor Spano refused to meet with the Yonkers Branch of the NAACP when the chapter’s president Rev. Frank Coleman expressed his disappointment in the mayor’s statement and requested a meeting to discuss it and demanded an apology. Black leaders expressed their outrage and pointed that this is part of a much-needed larger conversation about race in politics.
In a speech in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a simple question: “How long will prejudice blind the vision of men?” He answered the question by saying, “How long, not long” and told the gathered marchers that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” King also said in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail; “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Now more than fifty years later, as we assess the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we have indeed seen change. However, for all the improvements that have been made, this is no time to declare victory. There is so much more that needs to be improved upon and accomplished. For those who continue to face discrimination based on the color of their skin, their gender, disability, or sexual orientation, the answer “not long” is outdated and regressive. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves another question: “What can we contribute to society to bridge the gap of social injustices?”
In the current political climate, we have seen ads that explicitly call on white supremacy or racial stereotypes to ads that employ more subtle “dog whistles.” Whether implicit or explicit on the part of Gashi and his campaign as Smikle said, there’s no place for this in our political dialog. The racial gaslighting is disgusting. It is even more egregious when it comes from a fellow Democrats who is vying to represent a district that is majority minority.
We have invited Vadat Gashi to appear on our radio show People Before Politics Radio to discuss the matter, he has agreed to an interview Tuesday, May 16th at 6PM .
County Legislators Gashi and Catherine Parker are challenging Congressman Bowman in the August 23 Democratic Primary. Mark Jaffe has officially dropped out the race. Early voting starts this Saturday, August 13th. With so much on the line and our very democracy at risk, Black Westchester encourages all the vote responsibly and make informed decisions at the ballot box.