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The Cynical Racism of Nominating Herschel Walker

October 2, 2022

Herschel Walker

There is something truly odious about the decision by Georgia Republicans to nominate Herschel Walker to replace Raphael Warnock as senator. Walker is manifestly unqualified for the office, as evidenced by his preposterously incoherent statements, his obvious ignorance of the issues, and his frequent lies about his own resume and personal history. But the malign cynicism of his nomination goes much deeper. It simultaneously allows a virtually all-white party to set up a black face as cover for an ongoing effort to suppress black voters and, perhaps more important, express their contempt for black people and for the institution of the Senate itself. I can just hear in my mind the whoops of self-congratulatory laughter among the Georgia Good Ol’ Boys when Trump gave them their brilliant idea.

It’s easy to see why they did it. Walker is good-looking and famous. Football is King in the South and especially in rural and suburban Georgia where there isn’t much else happening and where the reliable Republican votes are, especially among white people. He was a legend on the idolized University of Georgia football team, which he left after the 1982 season (before graduating) to sign with the New Jersey Generals of the USFL, which was bought in 1983 by Donald Trump. He then played for the Cowboys, Vikings, Eagles, and Giants before retiring after the 1997 season. He then lived in Texas until this year, when he moved to Atlanta to start his senate campaign, which was pushed by Donald Trump who had put Walker on his President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition.  Once Walker announced his senate candidacy with Trump’s backing, other prospective candidates just melted away.

Walker offers white voters a kind of self-absolution for racism, while assuring them that it doesn’t exist and that nothing needs to change.  How many times will this sentence (or a less genteel variation) be uttered or thought: “I’m not racist, I voted for that black guy, Herschel Walker”? The growing litany of Walker’s misrepresentations, outright lies, revelations about sexual abuse and unacknowledged children, and bumbling gibberish (to use Leonard Pitts, Jr.’s word) makes no difference. Indeed, it’s kind of a plus because it feeds a pernicious stereotype and provides something to laugh at surreptitiously–a contemporary version of what historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls the “visual rhetoric of white supremacy”. It makes the Senate race into a kind of minstrel show for the amusement of white folks. All the better that Walker’s opponent occupies the pulpit that once belonged to Martin Luther King, Jr.! What could be better than to use a black man to oppose the battle against persistent institutional racism in American society that Dr. King fought and continues to be waged by real leaders like Rafael Warnock?

It appears that most black voters understand what’s going on and are not deceived. The New York Times could find almost no black people who will vote for Walker in his home town of Wrightsville, Georgia, which has a football stadium and a street named after him. But in Georgia, where vote margins are often razor-thin, it doesn’t take much to flip an election.

Those cynical Good Ol’ Boys in the Georgia Republican Party may well have the last laugh.

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