Revisiting race and religion

1969TimeYesterday we looked at that Pew report which criticized the mainstream media’s coverage of Obama’s speech on race and religion. The report claimed that the media got the race angle at the expense of the religion angle.

I thought of that when reading about the absolutely horrific Democratic primary campaign that was waged by Nikki Tinker against incumbent Rep. Steve Cohen. Tinker is black, Cohen is Jewish and the district is majority black. Ben Pershing of the Washington Post‘s Capitol Briefing blog reported on recent ads from the Tinker campaign:

Tinker’s last two TV ads have been particularly rough. In a spot released earlier this week, a black local former county commissioner criticizes Cohen for not supporting the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The ad includes images of a hooded Klan leader and a burning cross.

And Tinker’s most recent ad accuses Cohen of voting against allowing children to pray in schools — a charge his campaign denies — even “while he’s in OUR churches slapping hands and tapping his feet.” Is the “OUR churches” line a reference to Cohen being Jewish? It’s not exactly clear, nor is it clear whether Tinker’s late attacks will do her campaign any good.

She lost. In a landslide. But while Pershing reported, correctly, that the contest focused heavily on race, gender and religion, other media reports emphasize race — even while reporting about anti-Semitic fliers being distributed. One was titled, “Why do Steve Cohen and the Jews Hate Jesus?” If you can’t find a religious angle in that, you should have your vision checked. Still, the New York Times report by Adam Nossiter began this way:

Race Takes Central Role in a Memphis Primary

In the culmination of a racially fraught Congressional campaign in Memphis, a black candidate is linking her liberal-leaning white primary opponent in Thursday’s contest, Representative Steve Cohen, to the Ku Klux Klan in a television advertisement.

Similarly, U.S. News & World Report called the tactics “race-baiting.” (It strikes me that this is inopportune timing for Matt Bai’s upcoming piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.)

No one would deny that Tinker ran a racist campaign, but the means by which that racial message was targeted to voters was through religion. Forgive my editorializing here, but it’s wonderful that such a campaign would fail. But that some campaign strategists thought religion was a good carrier for the message — and that voters disagreed vehemently — is an interesting angle that is mostly lost in the coverage.

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  • julia

    The local paper, The Commercial Appela, reported on an altercation at Representative Cohen’s home on the 6th that related to ethnic concerns of a different nature that also involve religion.

    An Armenian-American documentary filmmaker pushed his way into the Representative’s home along with local new reporters. An altercation ensued when Cohen and his associates tried to eject the uninvited filmaker and police were called.

    Armenian-Americans from around the country have been enraged at Cohen, D-Memphis, for his part in stopping Congress from passing a resolution last year that would have condemned Turkey for committing genocide against Armenians when the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating during and after World War I.

    Armenian-Americans have donated between $25,000 and $30,000 to Tinker’s campaign.

    Cohen has often spoken of his pride in stopping the resolution, saying that during a congressional trip to the Middle East, he specifically asked Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, about the ramifications the resolution would have on U.S.-Turkish cooperation in suppressing violence in Iraq.

    “He said, ‘I am glad you brought that up. That would be very devastating to our troops.’ The Turks are our friends in NATO, they allow 8,000 trucks a day through Turkey into Iraq to serve our troops with supplies and needs. Those trucks could be stopped and the Turks are very serious about that. They allow us to use their airbase.

    “While I am against the mission of the Iraq war, I am for protecting our troops. And to pass that resolution would have been irresponsible and the Congress saw that.”


    So – the Armenian/American filmaker who is presumably Christian is supporting a black Christian who opposes a Jewish candidate who blocked the legislative condemnation of the majoritiy-Muslim country of Turkey. That’s about four ethnicities and three religions involved in the story, but not one of the religions is actually mentioned.

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