The Democratic primary for a state senate seat in Maryland’s 39th district has been a “among the more spirited this year in Maryland.” However, the contest literally took a dark turn this week when incumbent State Sen. Nancy King (D) sent out a campaign mailer “deliberately darkening” the skin tone of her primary challenger Saqib Ali.
The mailer, first obtained by Maryland Politics Watch, features two images of the candidate — one that appears to be a real photograph of Ali and a replica of that image that has been vertically flipped and darkened. “Every aspect” of the altered image of Ali — “his hair, his skin, his five-o’clock shadow, his tie and his suit — is darker”:
The campaign then chose to enlarge the darkened version of Ali later in the mailer.
King’s campaign manager Amy Yockus Hartman told the Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel that “at no time, in any way whatsoever, did we, or would we, alter photos or attempt to insinuate anything about Delegate Saqib Ali other than the verified facts we have consistently laid out through this campaign.”
Montgomery County Councilmember Valerie Ervin (D), who “is neutral in the race between King and Ali,” is not buying King’s explanation. Ervin left a comment on Maryland Politics Watch’s post, stating “this is the second piece of mail that has left me wondering if Senator King has any idea how many people of color that she represents in her district.” Ali was equally bewildered by King’s denial, “because clearly, to the plain eye, it’s obvious the photo has been altered. Without a doubt. So it’s one of those cases when someone says the sky is purple.”
Regardless of King’s intent, the alteration of skin tone has a clear impact on how people feel about candidates. A University of Chicago study last year showed that “people perceive lighter skin tone to be more representative of a candidate with whom they share political ideology than darker skin tone.” Even if an unknown candidate’s political affiliation is ambiguous, researchers found that voters “who saw a photo with darkened skin accompanying” an unknown candidate’s biography “reported that they were less likely to vote for this candidate.”