Later this year, whether the Democrat or Republican wins, the state of Georgia will elect a Black man to the United States Senate. In a state which has been, prior to the groundwork of Stacey Abrams, staunchly conservative and overwhelmingly Republican over the past several decades, the idea of electing a Black person from either political party to state-wide office can be a lot to digest. Still, any similarities between the two major-party candidates, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and former football star Herschel Walker stop after color and gender. In a race where the two major party candidates have those things in common, Walker has chosen to spread racist self-deprecating tropes as a means of drawing distinctions between himself and his opponent. As a prime example, after months of avoiding a debate with Warnock, Walker finally agreed to participate in one but not without a preemptive declaration last week playing up to those who might appreciate the racist stereotype of the docile subservient Black man who knows his place. “I’m this country boy, I’m not that smart. And he’s a preacher, he’s smart man, wear these nice suits, so he is going to show up and embarrass me,” Walker said of Warnock. “And I’m just waiting to show up and I will do my best.”
The statement—rife as it is with racially charged dog whistles—is unfortunately in line with how the rest of the campaign has gone. Throughout the campaign, much of Walker’s strategy has relied on painting himself to Georgia Republicans as a God-fearing, humble, relatable, ordinary, self-made common man from the country and making his opponent out as a fancy suit wearing, Biden-loving, smooth-talking, city slicker who receives kickbacks from the pulpit and has a questionable history of domestic violence. The irony here, of course, is that Walker is anything but the common man (and also has his own questionable history with domestic violence). As a Heisman Trophy winner whose athletic prowess gave rise to a College Football Hall of Fame career and a respectable journey in the NFL where he made millions, Walker has little in common with most people in a state where the poverty rate currently sits at 14 percent.* Beyond this dubious characterization, however, is a much more problematic subplot that might escape a cursory viewer: Walker is using racist tropes to try to galvanize white conservatives by leaning into antiquated and bigoted ideas. In a space where Walker finds himself without the ability to contend with Warnock on the merits, it’s a strategy that almost might be clever were it not so morally bankrupt.
Walker’s “I’m not so smart” comment serves multiple purposes. Most immediately, it lowers the bar to manage expectations around what will likely be a forgettable performance in the debate. This strategy is, of course, one that we have seen for decades. In 2004, for example, President George W. Bush’s strategist Matthew Dowd called John Kerry “the best debater since Cicero.” This approach makes it easier for the underdog candidate to claim post-debate victory when turning in even a marginal performance. It is also worth noting, however, that this does create a unique challenge for Warnock. He cannot play Walker’s game and dumb down his own intellect as to appear more relatable, but he also must be careful in threading a needle around not outclassing Walker too much, as that might make him appear as a bully. The other purpose of Walker’s version of the expectations game statement is that he is seeking to weaponize Warnock’s intellect in a way that portrays the reverend as not only out of touch but also as threatening and potentially difficult to control.
The resulting contrast is one that presents a subset of potentially bigoted white voters with a choice between an uppity trouble-maker preacher who is in favor of further changes to their way of life through radical leftist ideas while focusing on racial division, or a more deferential Black man who is not going to get out of line and certainly won’t be a champion for any issues dealing with systemic racism. It is a dog whistle borne out of the tradition of the gentle giant much too stupid and well-meaning to cause any problems. We have seen this stereotype before in popular culture: Big Sam (Gone with the Wind), Sambo (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Tom Robinson (To Kill a Mockingbird), Bigger Thomas (Native Son), and even in contemporary spaces with Bubba (Forrest Gump) and John Coffey (Green Mile). These characters all engender similar feelings of not being smart enough to think for themselves and almost dependent on direction from white male saviors.
There isn’t much more offensive to the subset of bigoted white voters Walker will have to rely upon for success than an uppity Black man, and Walker undoubtedly understands this. He seeks to position himself as safe and controllable, and intentionally plays into the idea that Black men and by extension, Black people, are fine, humble folks who can be trusted so long as we understand our limits and accept that white people know better for us than we do for ourselves. In fairness, it may be too much to suggest that Walker’s approach is rooted in ruse. Even as this may be his authentic self, though, he is clear on what he thinks a Black, relatable, country boy looks and sounds like to white Georgian voters.
Correction, Sept. 20, 2022: This article originally misstated that the poverty rate in the state of Georgia is 46 percent. It’s 14 percent.