Nov. 16 2016 12:50 AM

Mayor’s race grows nasty quickly

When I wrote the headline for last week’s cover, which said: “You thought Clinton-Trump was nasty: The 2017 Lansing mayor’s race is coming,” I didn’t think it would be that day.

But within hours, one candidate started to define herself in reaction to a drawing of her on the cover. The race is underway.

The cover showed two pretenders to the throne, City Council President Judi Brown Clarke and state Rep. Andy Schor, peering through the window at the incumbent, Virg Bernero.

Brown Clarke and her husband, District Judge Hugh Clarke, took offense. The judge called me to say his “heart sank” when he saw how dark his wife’s skin color was portrayed. I started to explain how I thought the whole paper had printed dark. He cut me off. “Don’t tell me it’s the ink,” he said angrily. “You made her look like a Sambo.”

I was stunned at being accused of employing a racial stereotype — so stunned that I forgot the obvious reply: Why don’t you tell that to the artist, who is an African American?

You can look at the image above and decide for yourself if you think it makes her look like a “Sambo.” We’ve thrown in a pic of Little Black Sambo from the children’s book for comparison.

I won’t get into all the back and forth here between me and Brown Clarke that ensued by phone and text messages. (See accompanying editor’s note.) What’s of lasting importance is what this tells us about Brown Clarke. There’s reason to be concerned.

First, there was her unwillingness to listen to my side of the story. Parroting her husband — itself interesting because of talk that he would be her “co-mayor” — she said in a voicemail message to me: “Don’t tell me it printed darker. It was created darker, and I don’t appreciate it.”

The implicit message I received: When Judi Brown Clarke doesn’t like something, she won’t listen and goes on the offensive.

Further, she said in the same message that unless we printed an apology, she’d no longer talk to City Pulse.

How very Virg Bernero, known both for his my-way-or-the-highway approach and for cutting off media organizations when thy run stories he doesn’t like. That will be an interesting dynamic to watch in a race that may well revolve around the perception that the incumbent is a bully, as Kyle Melinn’s story last week pointed out.

Then there’s the offense she, and her husband, took at her being depicted darker than she actually is.

The Clarkes’ reaction suggests colorism.

Colorism, you ask? Well, until this incident occurred, I hadn’t heard of it either.

But there’s a lot of literature about it since the novelist Alice Walker, herself an African American, coined the term in the 1980s. Walker defined it as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.”

Lori P. Tharps, a journalism professor at Temple University, wrote an essay about it in Time magazine just last month.

“In this country, because of deeply entrenched racism, we already know that dark skin is demonized and light skin wins the prize. And that occurs precisely because this country was built on principles of racism. It cannot be overstated that if racism didn’t exist, a discussion about varying skin hues would simply be a conversation about aesthetics. But that’s not the case. The privileging of light skin over dark is at the root of an ill known as colorism.”

Now, you can judge for yourself from the pictures on the preceding page where the Clarkes each fall on the melatonin scale, but I think it's fair to say neither is on the dark ends.

So, if you think the shoe fits, then what we have is a thin-skinned potential mayoral candidate uncomfortable with being portrayed as darker.

Brown Clarke and Clarke

But maybe that’s not it, or only part of it. Perhaps they are worried for political reasons.

There’s reason to be concerned. After all, Capital Region Progress, the shadowy political operation aligned with Bernero, sent out fliers depicting political opponents Adam Hussain and Derrick Quinney as darker than they are.

But those fliers also made them look sinister. Do you think Judi Brown Clarke looks sinister in our image of her? I don’t. I see an attractive woman. If you think she looks sinister, maybe you need to examine if … well … you’re a colorist.

Regardless, the Brown Clarke's reaction to the cover image suggests the mayor’s race is going to be a nasty fight. If she runs, we're facing not one but two temperamental candidates.

For voters who prefer a more low-key contender, consider Andy Schor’s response by text to me to the same cover:

“My wife thinks you gave me too much hair.”

What, a mayoral candidate with not just a self-effacing sense of humor but perspective as well?