GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has sparked a firestorm with comments comparing Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Black Democrat representing Massachusetts, to “modern grand wizards” of the Ku Klux Klan.
Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old businessman who has been running a GOP campaign in the mode of a millennial Donald Trump, initially made the remark Friday during a campaign stop in Iowa before doubling down in the face of criticism Sunday and Monday.
“Republicans seem to have decided that in order to stop Democrats, they have to stop Black women,” Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, an organization focused on mobilizing Black voters, told The Hill.
“We’re not rewriting history or turning it on its head to suggest that a ‘grand wizard’ is anything other than what it is,” Shropshire said. “This language has never been about persuading Black voters. It is about stirring the racist stew that they have cooked up in their party and throwing it at Black women.”
The fight started when Ramaswamy on Friday in Iowa criticized remarks Pressley made in 2019 as racist. Pressley at the time during an event at Netroots Nation, a liberal conference said that Democrats don’t “need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice.”
Pressley’s spokesperson at the time told The Washington Post that Pressley’s point was that “diversity at the table doesn’t matter if there’s not real diversity in policy.”
On Sunday, after Pressley ripped him for the remarks, Ramaswamy said he brought up the 2019 comments “to provoke an open and honest discussion in this country,” he told CNN’s “Inside Politics.”
Pressley had hit back at Ramaswamy’s comparison on MSNBC’s “Politics Nation” over the weekend, calling “the verbal assault” from the presidential hopeful “shameful” and “dangerous.”
“It is not that long ago that we were besieged by images of white supremacists carrying tiki torches in Charlottesville. It was not that long ago that a white supremacist mob seized the Capitol, waving Confederate flags and erecting nooses on the West Lawn of the Capitol,” Pressley told the host, the Rev. Al Sharpton.
She added that her “ancestors and living family members have been brutalized, lynched, raped by the Ku Klux Klan.”
But the congresswoman said Ramaswamy isn’t “occupying any real estate” in her mind as she continues her work on racial justice.
Ramaswamy continued the conflict Monday.
“It’s racist. It’d make the Grand Wizard of the KKK proud. It’s driving reactionary attacks. It needs to end,” he wrote in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. Ramaswamy included a portion of the 2019 Netroots Nation remarks from Pressley in his post.
Ramaswamy’s campaign team stood by the remarks when contacted by The Hill on Monday, directing a reporter to his post on X.
The backdrop for the verbal sparring has been charged.
On Saturday, thousands descended on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to mark the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, a cornerstone of the civil rights movement.
Later that evening in Jacksonville, Fla., three Black people were killed by a white gunman who police say was targeting African Americans. The gunman later shot and killed himself.
Ramaswamy is one of a few people of color running for the GOP presidential nomination.
Ramaswamy, who is Indian American, has sought to use his background to appeal to GOP voters.
Earlier in August, he promised that if he secured the GOP nomination, he would “bring along voters of diverse shades of melanin in droves” to win the general election.
Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright said Ramaswamy’s comments toward Pressley — which he labeled “disgusting” — indicate a disconnect between the GOP’s desire to win the support of more diverse voters and their actions toward those demographics.
“I think it’s further proof that the Republican Party and those who are seeking to lead their party are not serious or intentional about bringing along, or bringing into the fold, voters of color, people of color … nor are they serious about understanding the ever-changing diversity of this country,” Seawright said.
“MAGA extremist [candidates] are not serious about anything other than trying to embrace the extremism that now makes up the Republican Party,” he added.
He also suggested Ramaswamy’s comments are an effort to “say anything to get a reaction out of anybody.”
Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, added that Ramaswamy’s comments might not be what Black voters are listening to, but it doesn’t mean they won’t have an effect on who shows up at the ballot boxes for 2024.
“I don’t think most Black voters were really paying attention to the Republican debate or the conversations in the aftermath. Most people aren’t even aware of what Ramaswamy was saying, who he is,” Albright told The Hill.
Still, Albright said, Ramaswamy’s comments do speak to a core of the Republican Party.
“They’re speaking to their base, which is hungry for that type of red bait,” said Albright. “They’re certainly not speaking to Black voters, they’re not really speaking to any reasonable or serious voter outside of the base that just wants more of the same.”
Republican presidential candidate Asa Hutchinson on Sunday criticized Ramaswamy for “not really looking at real life in America.”
The Hill has reached out to other GOP presidential campaigns for comment.
Seawright warned that Ramaswamy’s rhetoric could cause “real harm, detrimental harm” to Pressley and others in the wake of the Jacksonville shooting.
“We’ve seen what happens when politicians use certain words and they’re not checked in real time. We’ve seen historically what that has led to, and the power of hate, the power of bigotry, the power of division and racism,” Seawright said.
“This could potentially lead to Ayanna Pressley — an innocent Black woman, a mother, wife, member of Congress — having to rearrange her life because she’s become a target.”
Shropshire added that over the last five years, surveys from BlackPAC have shown Black voters consistently identified racism as one of their top three motivating issues.
She said such rhetoric could cause an outpouring of Black voters come 2024 — and not for Republicans.
“If the Republican Party wants to inspire record Black turnout, they should continue down this path,” she said.