Opinion Forum

The rhetoric of ‘outside agitators’ has a troubling past we can’t ignore

Georgia gubernatorial election is over after Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams ended her governor’s bid. But with the Georgia’s Secretary of State still undecided, the consequences of the governor’s race will have enduring effects. For one, we can say with certainty that Brian Kemp’s voter suppression efforts and divisive rhetoric were apparently effective enough to elect him, and they may yet determine who replaces his as Secretary of State in the Dec. 4 runoff election.

Kemp resigned as Georgia’s Secretary of State on Nov. 8. But until he did, his responsibilities included monitoring the state’s election systems. For nearly two years, Kemp has also been Georgia’s Republican candidate for governor. In other words, Georgia’s Secretary of State (that is, Kemp) also presided over a massive campaign to reject, limit, or hold in limbo certain voters’ registration applications, which were expected to favor the GOP candidate for governor (uh, also Kemp). The voter suppression efforts were so egregious that former President and Georgia native Jimmy Carter, called on Kemp to resign as Secretary of State in late October.

The registration holds resulted from Georgia’s adoption of the now infamous “exact match” voter registration system, which “suspends a person’s voting status if the information they enter on their voter registration form doesn’t precisely match state driver’s license and social security records.” A misplaced hyphen or a missing tilde can result in removal from Georgia’s voter rolls.

On Nov. 2, a U.S. District judge ruled Kemp’s restrictions needed to be halted immediately. But not before the restrictions held more 50,000 registrations in limbo for weeks. And though some registrations were restored, they were a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly 1.3 million registered voters removed from voter rolls during Kemp’s tenure as Secretary of State.

Kemp’s voter registration policies were obviously focused on people with names more complicated than “Brian Kemp.” And a number of people, including Abrams, argued his policies “disproportionately affect black and minority voters.” In other words, the policies were racially targeted.

Given the accusation of racial bias, you might think Kemp would have been careful about how his words might stoke racial resentment. You’d be wrong. In fact, his divisive rhetoric played an important role in the campaign.

Take, for example, his statement right before the election that “outside agitators” were “falsely attacking” Georgia’s Secretary of State. “Outside agitators” is not a neutral phrase in American history. As anyone familiar with the Civil Rights era can attest, it is a phrase that pro-segregation leaders adopted in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s to dismiss calls for voting rights, educational equality, and other civil rights for African-Americans. The accusation of “outside agitators” was explicitly used to fight racial equality.

As Yahoo! News’s John Ward pointed out, calling people “outside agitators” can be used to disregard, for example, civil rights leaders holding multi-state marches or boycotts. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out as much in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It can also be used to designate people as “foreigners” or raise questions about a candidate who is supported by “outsiders” (that is, anyone raising funds from people or organizations in other states). Kemp’s campaign chair, for instance, has been pointing out for months that “Stacey Abrams is funded by out-of-state, radical activists who want to turn Georgia into a lawless, losing state like California.”

In the 1950s and ‘60s, however, the rhetoric of “outside agitators” was not just a thinly veiled campaign message. It had violent consequences. In the summer of 1964, for example, hundreds of northern activists (mostly college students) were bussed into Mississippi to register black voters in anticipation of the coming presidential election. There was widespread hostility to these “outside agitators,” which resulted in riots, beatings, and arrests. At least three of these Freedom Riders—Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner — paid for their so-called outside agitation with their lives, which is to say nothing of Mississippi’s black citizens, some of whom were also killed for their involvement in the movement.

In short, “outside agitators” is a not just a provocative term for preventing outsiders from weighing in on local matters. It’s historically been an orientation to “outsiders” that has resulted in anger, violence, and murder.

“Outside agitators” is not, of course, strictly used in the American South, but it has a very specific meaning and a notorious history in the South. And while it’s nearly impossible to believe Kemp didn’t know its charged past, he apparently convinced enough voters he had plausible deniability about the phrase to get himself elected governor.

To be sure, Republican candidate for Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, is not Kemp and has not been nearly as provocative as Kemp. Raffensperger has nevertheless pledged to carry on with Kemp’s policies, including championing voter ID and maintaining “clean voter lists.” He is more circumspect in his rhetoric, but Raffensperger is nevertheless stoking similar animosity against supposed “outside agitators.”

By the time the Secretary of State runoff election happens, most people will have forgotten that the previous office holder used the phrase “outside agitators” to refer to people who challenged his policies. But to forget or ignore such racially charged dog whistles is to allow them new life, especially when they are intended to support policies that favor a particular party. And for a country that has struggled to come to terms with its racial history, we cannot allow that to go unnoticed.

Dr. Ryan Skinnell is an assistant professor and a scholar of political rhetoric at San Jose State University. He has published four books, including Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us About Donald J. Trump.

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