During a virtual debate Sunday, U.S. Rep. Colin Allred accused his opponent, Republican Genevieve Collins, of digitally darkening his skin in campaign mailers.
Allred said that Collins has been using scare tactics throughout her bid for Texas’ 32nd Congressional District, which includes Dallas, Mesquite, Garland and Highland Park.
“You’ve been fearmongering throughout this campaign, about not only me but also what’s going to happen if I get reelected, that I’m going to try and defund the police,” Allred said. “You darkened my skin in mailers. That’s not who we are here in North Texas.”
Collins did not address the accusation during the debate, which was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee-Dallas. But her campaign manager, Rob Costello, adamantly denied the accusation.
“Absolutely not. We did not darken his skin in a mailer,” he told the Observer.
In a tweet Sunday, Dallas Morning News political reporter Gromer Jeffers Jr. encouraged his followers to decide for themselves whether Allred’s skin was darkened.
During a Sunday night debate sponsored by the American Jewish Committee Dallas, @RepColinAllred accuses @gcforcongress of darkening his skin in her campaign mailers. Judge for yourself. pic.twitter.com/OH9bJjQHxH— Gromer M. Jeffers (@gromerjeffers) October 18, 2020
Although some weren’t so sure, others expressed outrage.
“When you have nothing to offer voters, you resort to lies, doctored photos and scare tactics. Proud to support Congressman Allred,” one person wrote.
Another Twitter user was equally incensed.
“More offensive than the color is the dog whistle created by that, in combination with the tone and look, implying violence and ‘danger,’” they wrote.
In one of the mailers, Allred stands with his arms crossed in front of a crowd of protesters dressed in all-black. His picture appears to have been altered to be in grayscale, while the background image remains in full color.
Text on the mailer states that Allred voted to restrict police funding, putting “families at risk.”
Another campaign mailer depicts Allred holding a microphone while looters ravage a city engulfed in flames in the background.
“Colin Allred is putting our families in danger,” it reads, also accusing him of “hurting our communities.”
Darkening a minority candidate’s skin has long been used in contentious political races. In July, Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham came under fire for digitally deepening his Democratic opponent’s skin tone, according to CNN.
GOP campaign ads also darkened then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s skin in 2008, The Washington Post reported. When politicians appeal to racist voters by insinuating support for prejudiced views, it's known as "dog-whistle politics."
One can only speculate what Collins’ campaign intended with those mailers, said Mia Moody-Ramirez, a professor and chair of the department of journalism, public relations and new media at Baylor University. But studies have shown that using certain photos can influence the way that people think of a candidate, she said.
“Just the simple darkening of a person’s skin can make them appear more menacing because people relate that dark skin to criminality and to the darker side of life,” Moody-Ramirez said.
The tactic isn’t limited to the political realm, Moody-Ramirez said. In 1994, two publications ran a mugshot of O.J. Simpson on their cover during his murder trial, but TIME magazine’s version had darkened his skin considerably.
Moody-Ramirez, who also holds a doctorate in journalism, said that the altering of one’s skin in photos is a topic that is linked to colorism and racial stereotypes. It ties into the idea that anything dark or black is bad, she said.
Regardless of whether Collins’ camp altered Allred’s skin color, the photos and text used in the mailers frame him as a dangerous candidate, Moody-Ramirez said. By placing Allred in front of looters, it makes him look guilty by association, she said.
In heated political races, people often resort to tactics that they wouldn’t normally use, Moody-Ramirez said. As such, seeing such controversial campaign mailers doesn’t really surprise her, she said.
“I think we just have to make sure that people call them out on it when we see that it’s done, so that they don’t think that it’s OK,” Moody-Ramirez said.
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