Click here to read the opinion piece in the New York Daily News


In 2020, when Jamaal Bowman first ran for Congress for a Bronx/Westchester district, a super PAC opposing his candidacy ran TV ads painting him as a criminal. The ads were widely condemned for flirting with racist tropes about Black men and criminality. During his first reelection campaign, Bowman was yet again targeted by his primary opponent with eyebrow-raising attack ads that darkened his skin color.

Bowman is campaigning for reelection again this year. Again, he is facing the same tired, racist attacks he’s faced in his last two races — but now from a Democratic opponent funded by far-right billionaires.

The politics of racial grievance have deep roots in American history. But in the modern era, politicians have learned to use code words, appealing to racist prejudices without using explicitly racist rhetoric. Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and 1968 presidential win was founded on this kind of rhetoric.

Infamous Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained years later that the explicitly racist rhetoric of George Wallace would have backfired, so Nixon used more “abstract” phrases like “forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff”. Nixon’s political descendants continued to refine this strategy, from “welfare queens” and “law and order” to “make America great again.”

With our fundamental civil rights and democratic principles currently under attack by the far-right, we need to defeat those politics of racial grievance with a multi-racial, multi-faith, cross-class, cross-generational coalition. We need that solidarity, especially in a year as consequential as this one. This is why we are so alarmed at the racially divisive tactics being used by Bowman’s opponents.

Bowman first won in June 2020, as the country was undergoing a racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd. A former middle school principal who grew up in public housing, he was able to unite that diverse coalition to defeat an out-of-touch yet powerful 30-year incumbent.

His new constituents had never had a Black congressman. He’s since brought back more than a billion dollars of critical funds to his district, championed visionary investments in public schools, health care and child care, and mobilized young voters and voters of color to the polls to help Democrats win in 2020 and 2022.

And for that, Bowman is now the target of a coordinated smear campaign that aims to defeat him in the June Democratic primary by using coded appeals to white voters.

The code words of choice are “angry” and “radical.” Nearly identical to attacks former President Barack Obama faced, Bowman’s opponents have speciously tried to tie him to both Louis Farrakhan and Hamas. This is nothing new for AIPAC, the lobbying powerhouse funded by far-right billionaires that recruited and then bankrolled Westchester County Executive George Latimer to run against Bowman.

More than 85% of AIPAC’s political spending has been against candidates of color. They have no interest in seeing the Democratic Party succeed, and have no qualms about stoking racial division. On the contrary, AIPAC and their allies have repeatedly exploited tensions between Black and Jewish communities, attempting to pit white Jewish voters against progressive leaders of color with bad-faith accusations of antisemitism.

Luckily, many voters see exactly what is going on. At a recent Black History Month event in New Rochelle, after Latimer inexplicably accused Bowman of taking money from Hamas, the woman he was talking to told a reporter: “The goal is to try to draw a connection between Bowman and Hamas. It is like a flashback to the Southern strategy.”

The foundation of the progressive movement was cast during the civil rights movement when Black and Jewish leaders, so often the targets of racial grievance politics, together demanded equality for all. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously marched together in Selma and spoke out against poverty, racism and war.

Black and Jewish leaders — including leaders who are both Black and Jewish — have marched together since: against police violence and after the murders of Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor; and today, rising up to oppose war and demand a just future for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

AIPAC and its far-right donors aren’t the first to try to tear Black and Jewish communities apart, and Latimer isn’t the first politician seeking to benefit from that electoral strategy. We believe Democratic voters in New York’s 16th District will see through these ugly yet transparent ploys and put their energy into a multi-racial, cross-generational coalition that looks like the one that elected Bowman in 2020. The future of our democracy depends on it.

Sasson is the executive director of Jews For Racial & Economic Justice. Nnaemeka is the former director of the New York Working Families Party.

Click here to read the opinion piece in the New York Daily News