Posted on November 7, 2022

Ron Johnson Pushes Racial Divisions in His Closing Message to Wis. GOP Voters

Annie Linskey, Washington Post, November 6, 2022

As he made his final pitch to voters in western Wisconsin last week, Sen. Ron Johnson told a story about a truck driver who got stuck while navigating a tricky road.

The senator said he was driving through Portage when he encountered a traffic snarl caused by the immobile truck. Johnson said he is typically impatient but was not in this case because he witnessed something “heartwarming”: The people of the small community in central Wisconsin sprang into action to help the truck driver get going again.

He ended the story with this reveal: “You know, one little point really — really doesn’t factor in the story at all. But the driver was an African American gentleman. So now why would I add that little detail? I happen to be running against Mandela Barnes,” Johnson said.

Barnes, currently Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor, is Black, and has criticized the impact of systemic racism on society in blunt terms. Johnson has called attention to those remarks in recent days, along with the anecdote about the truck driver, which took place in a town that is nearly 90 percent White. His campaign did not respond to questions about what message Johnson hopes to convey with the story, but critics think it is intended to assure White voters that Barnes is wrong about systemic racism being a concern in Wisconsin.

Race has played a central role in the Wisconsin senatorial election, which is among the closest in the country and could determine the partisan balance of the Senate. Supporters of both candidates have accused the other side of unfairly injecting race into the campaign. For weeks, outside GOP groups have financed an onslaught of ads, including a spot that showed Barnes’s name styled in graffiti, and others that have labeled him as “dangerously liberal” and “different.” In some advertisements Barnes’s skin has been darkened.

At a campaign stop Saturday in Racine, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers criticized Johnson and the GOP for playing up race in the Senate campaign. “I think they’ve gone out of their way to make him look like a mean and angry man — making his face look darker. That’s baloney, frankly,” Evers, who is in a tight reelection race, told reporters after a rally with supporters.

“I think it’s racism when you’re — when you take a candidate who happens to be Black — and try to make him look blacker and angrier.” Evers said.

In his stump speech during the past several days, Johnson has repeated some of Barnes’s past comments about systemic racism and said the Democratic nominee has shown “contempt” for America. “That’s what he thinks about you. Literally, do you want him representing you?” Johnson asked a crowd in Black River Falls.

“No!” several people yelled.

Johnson continued: “Why does he want to represent people that he views are just systemically racist?”

A spokesman for Johnson’s campaign argued that Barnes’s past comments about systemic racism have made the subject fair game. “Sadly, Lt. Gov. Barnes is the candidate that inserted race into the campaign,” said Johnson spokesman Ben Voelkel.


Actor LeVar Burton, of “Star Trek” fame, who campaigned with Barnes in Madison on Friday, said Johnson “is one of my least favorite human beings. He’s arrogant. He’s racist. Just look at the ads he runs.”


Should he prevail, Barnes would be Wisconsin’s first Black senator. The state is 87 percent White, according to 2022 census data. It’s become one of the country’s key swing states, with most major elections in recent years decided by exceedingly slim margins.


Barnes, 35, has been in public life for a decade and has given a number of interviews over the years on the topic of race and policing in Black communities. Many of those have been replayed in recent weeks by Republicans seeking to show him as having extreme views.

In a wide-ranging July 2021 interview on Black Oxygen, a podcast, Barnes said that national parks “weren’t made for the enjoyment of people who weren’t White” and added that some of them are carved from Indigenous land. In the interview he also says the parks have “many positive benefits.”

In a 2018 radio interview, he said racism in Wisconsin is “a little more scary” because it’s “much more concealed” than in the Deep South and “can be institutionalized.” He quipped that the dynamic could be called “concealed-carry racism.”


The state’s western communities, where Johnson has unspooled his latest stump speech, are mostly White. There, race resonates even in a reference to Milwaukee, where most of the state’s Black population lives, and which can be painted to some voters as a “scary place, far away,” he said.


Reggie Jackson, a historian based in Milwaukee, said it’s clear to him what Johnson is trying to do. “He’s trying to pander to White people’s idea that America isn’t racist,” said Jackson, who said he has not offered a public endorsement in the campaign.

The story about the Black truck driver aided by the White residents of the community is a “tried and true trope to get White people to feel good about themselves,” Jackson said. It’s a kind of sophistic logic, suggesting that a White person can’t be racist if they have once helped a Black person, he said.

Jackson also took issue with Johnson’s comments suggesting that Barnes is unpatriotic. “It’s just completely at odds with where Wisconsinites are. We love this country,” Johnson told reporters after the Onalaska rally.

That type of rhetoric comes from a long history of White people questioning the loyalty of Black citizens who complain about discrimination in the United States, Jackson said. “They used to say, ‘if you don’t like it, find another place to live.’”

“It’s another shameful attempt to placate White people. Because there’s been so much conversation about systemic racism,” Jackson said.