Critics Called Ad Racist, Senate Candidate Said Ad Is About Criminals

May 14, 2018

A screen capture from the Russ Fagg television ad that had been posted on YouTube but has since been removed. The ad was titled "Judge."
Credit screen capture YouTube

A recent television ad that featured images of what appeared to be tattooed, gun toting Mexican gang members was pulled from U.S. Senate Candidate Russ Fagg's YouTube channel last week.

YPR and the Montana Human Rights Network both have received comments from people concerned about that ad.  Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights network, was asked to discuss wheter the ad fit the definition of racist.

YPR: Thank you so much for joining us to talk about an issue which makes many people uncomfortable.  I want to let you know YPR has received comments from listeners who believe that this ad by U.S. Senate candidate Russ Fagg is racist.

So I am turning to you as a representative of a non-profit, nonpartisan organization  that tracks and responds to instances of racism and bias. I want to ask you, by definition is this ad racist or biased?

Rachel Carroll Rivas:  Jackie, thanks so much for having this conversation and I think you’re right it’s often uncomfortable for people but so important.

We too at the Montana Human Rights Network gotten quite a few calls and messages from members, supporters and community members concerned about this particular ad from Russ Fagg.

And they too have felt that it was racist or biased and made them just feel  bad.

A term like racism is loaded. It carries a lot of weight and power. It’s also self-defined.  But when we’re talking about an ad that plays on people’s bias on the issue of race then I do think it fits the definition.

YPR: Let me ask is it overt or is there really a subtext? Help us understand that with this ad.

RCR: I think it is important to understand the social and political environment that creates a place for an ad like this to seem appropriate to air from a statewide congressional candidate and a judge and a prosecutor.

You know clearly racism isn’t new. President Trump did not create racism but he did use existing bias, fear and resentment to play on the emotions of white people.

Anti-immigrant sentiment isn’t new either. You know the Irish, the Japanese and so many groups through history have been decried as ‘dirty’ and ‘lazy’ and ‘criminal.’

However, in this particular time we see immigration being used as a ‘guise to talk about race and express racism using coded language, like ‘illegal’ and focusing particularly on immigrants of color from very specific countries.

While it may be about law and order and patriotism in reality it's also about white nationalism, about racism wrapped in a flag, representing a very narrow idea of who and what is American.

And the framing of this ad. While it may be about law and order and patriotism in reality it’s also about white nationalism, about racism wrapped in a flag, representing a very narrow idea of who and what is American. A narrow definition that leaves out most of us and either maintains or harkens back to a time of power by a few.

You know the Fagg ad uses a very dark imagery, dark music to create a feeling of unease about immigrants that he targets. But it also generally feeds on the fear of brown men. In the case of this ad brown Latino men but quite frankly it could be American Indian men or black men. He preys on people’s bias that they already hold about others and he uses fear and resentment to define who is criminal and who with a gun we should be afraid of. You know if you counter this ad with political ads of a white man in his orange hunting vest and a rifle, the comparison is pretty stark.  

And I think it’s our job to call out those types of differences and to say that this isn’t really appropriate and it’s manipulating folks and stop ourselves.

YPR: Before I get to that I want to ask you, couldn’t the argument be made though that there is some truth to this ad. That Mexican cartels, according to law enforcement officials, are indeed bringing drugs across the border – namely methamphetamine – for sale into the U.S., including Montana, and that they do have guns.

RCR: So listen, the Fagg ad started with the coded message that it’s ‘black and white.’ But the reality is very little in our world is simple. Our world is complex and there is a kernel of truth in every conspiracy theory, stereotype and bias. But it’s our job to dig deeper, to use critical thinking and to stop ourselves and call out people who are really exasperating those tiny kernels of truth.

We could extrapolate that all white men are terrorists if we look at the number of white men who have perpetuated mass shootings, violence and acts of domestic terrorists in recent years. But that would be ridiculous. Just as if it is ridiculous to say that all men of color are criminals and all immigrants are criminals and murderers.   

I really think it’s inappropriate to take something so as individual acts of crime and put them on a whole race or nationality of people. And we need to say that those times folks are using opportunities with their voice to manipulate us and to bring out issues of race and racism in a non-productive way are not ok.

YPR: So is there anything the Montana Human Rights Network suggests people should do?

RCR: Absolutely. I think if folks are concerned about the ad, first they should tell Russ Fagg that it was inappropriate and that they didn’t like what they saw. They should tell the Republican party that they didn’t either. And I think as a member of our judicial system, you know folks should question that as well. And in addition, we should question ourselves. And it’s about understanding how (garbled) and to stop that. To have a good conversation on the street corner.   

Russ Fagg has brought about a conversation that I think isn’t productive but we can have productive conversations with our neighbors, with our family members, our co-workers. We can have a sidewalk corner conversation in a positive, pro-active way and use this opportunity that Fagg has presented that’s negative and flip it and take the time to dig a little bit deeper, do better ourselves and call upon our leaders to do better.

YPR: I want to thank you so much, Rachel Carroll Rivas from the Montana Human Rights Network, for talking about an issue which can be uncomfortable. Thank you.

RCR: Thank you, Jackie. We appreciate the opportunity.

After this interview with Rachel Carroll Rivas co-director with the Montana Human Rights Network, YPR reached out to GOP Senate candidate Russ Fagg.

“The ad was meant to catch people’s attention,” he said. “It certainly did that and you know it was stark.”

He said it was to call attention to the methamphetamine epidemic in Montana and the U.S. and the crimes associated with meth.

He also told YPR the pictures in that ad featured members of the Mexican gang known as MS-13 because nearly all of the meth that comes into the U.S. and Montana comes from Mexico. He denies the ad is racist.

I'm talking about illegal aliens who are criminals. They can be white, they can be red, they can be purple. They can be any color. They are illegal aliens who are criminals. And that's not a racist statement.

“I’m talking about illegal aliens who are criminals,” Fagg said. “They can be white, they can be red, they can be purple. They can be any color. They are illegal aliens who are criminals. And that’s not a racist statement. It’s just a statement about the criminal activity and unfortunately illegal aliens bring some of that into our country and we need to secure our borders to try to keep that from happening.”

Fagg also said it is not fearmongering to talk about a real issue facing so many Montana families.