Nuñez: Ahead of RI Primary Election, racism and sexism dominate the polls

In this election, instead of the media, political pundits, and voters focusing on rising costs of living, the abysmal housing market, climate change, or corporate corruption, they channel their energy into attacking diverse candidates for simply existing as such.

September 12, 2022, 12:48 pm

By Ray Nuñez

Ahead of Tuesday’s primary elections, Rhode Islanders had a typical election cycle – new candidates versus incumbents, a personal or political scandal here and there, televised debates, and so on. Our roster of candidates for public office represents the most significant diversity our local politics have experienced thus far. So naturally, racism and sexism (expected in any election cycle) were at an all-time high. 

In this election, instead of the media, political pundits, and voters focusing on rising costs of living, the abysmal housing market, climate change, or corporate corruption, they channel their energy into attacking diverse candidates for simply existing as such. It doesn’t matter that we are a day out from the primaries and that all this madness is coming to an end in November. What does matter is that the hardships and abuses faced by our Black and brown female candidates will only be passed on to the next generation of political hopefuls if we don’t act. 

Earlier this year, State Senator Tiara Mack, who is Black and queer, went viral for posting a video of herself twerking. Instead of being received as a usual TikTok trend, she was harassed and abused across all social media platforms. For simply posting a video of her dancing, which she has the right to do, she received an onslaught of death threats, vile phone calls calling her the n-word, and posts calling her a sexual deviant targeting children. 

Her opponent Joseph Almeida said Mack was an insult to all women. Meanwhile, Almeida missed the debate against Mack just days before the election. While Almeida’s decision barely cracked headlines, we can only imagine the vicious vitriol Mack would have been subjected to had she done the same. 

Take a look at Nellie Gorbea, our Latina Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate. While her campaign faces daily scrutiny, everyone seems to have forgotten that our current Governor and incumbent candidate Daniel McKee is under investigation by the FBI. If Secretary Gorbea was under federal investigation, there’s no world in which she would receive endorsements or garner the establishment support McKee is receiving. Let alone the privilege of assumed innocence. 

Earlier this summer, we witnessed this aggression towards Black women result in Senate candidate Jennifer Rourke being physically assaulted by her GOP opponent – an off-duty police officer – during an abortion rights rally at the State House in Providence. We can debate policy left and right, but when these interactions turn violent, we all have a moral and social responsibility to stand up for what’s right. Jennifer did not deserve this. No one deserves a violent response in a healthy democracy. 

And let’s not forget about Nirva LaFortune, the Black female candidate for Mayor of Providence. A few weeks ago, the Providence Journal published a candid photo of LaFortune looking “angry.” This ignorant decision plays into a longstanding racist perception of Black women as aggressive. Meanwhile, her male opponents were conveniently represented using their professional headshots. 

Black, brown, and female candidates in any part of the country are subjected to relentless and perpetual cycles of discrimination, racism, and sexism – ranging from the verbal to even the physical. The extent of the aggression doesn’t matter – racism is racism, and sexism is sexism – period. It’s about time we call it out. 

These candidates are not only expecting to face indignities and depravities from the media, opponents, and voters, but they are expected to accept and tolerate it. God forbid they stand up against hatred and express emotion to defend themselves; they will only be subjected to further abuse and hardship. 

Senator Mack herself said, “As someone who’s directly experiencing this, I can see why there isn’t longevity of Black and Brown women in politics because this isn’t sustainable for mental health… there’s a reason why White cis men thrive in politics, and it’s only been catered toward them, because they’ve created a hostile environment for anyone else.”

We have to ask ourselves what is the point of participating in this democratic process and of claiming to uphold the tenets of democracy when many around us can’t treat others democratically, let alone humanely.  

With racism and sexism in any political arena, we are further depriving our diverse neighbors and community members of the proper representation they deserve and need to survive. You can’t claim to care about equity, judicial reform, housing rights, or living wages if you don’t care about everyone’s humanity, no matter if you agree or disagree with them. Rhode Island will never experience substantial, tangible social, political, and economic change if this is how we treat the representatives working to bring forth that change.

To these candidates and all the others of diversity sacrificing their time, energy, and well-being to be our elected leaders:

  • We see you. 
  • We honor you.
  • We respect you. 
  • We thank you for devoting yourselves to serving your communities at any and all costs.

I’ll see you all at the polls.

Ray Nuñez is the founder of Nuñez: The People’s Agency, an anti-racist creative marketing agency serving progressive causes, companies, and candidates.