Vivek Ramaswamy has sparked a firestorm of criticism since launching his 2024 presidential campaign for comments that some have called racially charged.
Recently, the 38-year-old entrepreneur faced backlash for comparing Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Black Democrat representing Massachusetts, to “modern grand wizards” of the Ku Klux Klan. He has said that the U.S. education system is a “modern ghetto system,” that the government pays women in inner cities to be single, and has argued with former CNN anchor Don Lemon on what it was like to live as a Black person in America.
“I think there is a pattern here, but to be honest, I will go one step further and say that this is a cornerstone of his campaign,” said Brandon Weathersby, presidential communications director for the American Bridge PAC.
“Just because you deliver it with a smile, just because it’s a little more palatable, doesn’t mean that it’s not going to have a lot of the same negative implications for folks or literally feeling like there’s a target on your back when you go outside or when you go into certain communities, because that rhetoric has been normalized.”
Ramaswamy, who is Indian American, announced his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination in February, quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his announcement video. But much of his rhetoric has echoed that of former President Trump’s.
Though Trump remains the front-runner for the GOP nomination, Ramaswamy has been rising in the polls with some showing him posing a real threat to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has consistently polled in second place.
Earlier in August, Ramaswamy 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.
But his rhetoric on race only continues to draw criticism, with some experts saying his comments do not speak to Black voters at all.
A spokesperson for Ramaswamy’s campaign told The Hill that people are welcome to disagree with his statements but that he will always say what he believes.
“Vivek says what most people are feeling, he doesn’t even really speak in partisan terms,” said Tricia McLaughlin, senior adviser and communications director for the campaign. “Most of the things he’s talking about are not Republican or Democrat, it’s American issues.”
Many have argued that American politics has seen an increase in racialized political rhetoric since the 2016 election, but Ange-Marie Hancock, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, says the trend goes back decades.
What has changed, Hancock said, is how explicit the comments have become in the political world.
For instance, she said, Ramaswamy’s comments about single mothers are reminiscent of former President Reagan’s speech that introduced the term “welfare queens” to the nation.
“The difference between what President Reagan said in the 1980s in that speech was that it was coded,” Hancock argued. “‘Welfare queen’ didn’t say Black, didn’t say African American, didn’t say women of color or something to that effect. So the change that Ramaswamy is doing is he’s being explicitly racist as opposed to using coded language.”
Hancock added that as a person of color, Ramaswamy had to determine ahead of time how to address race in his campaign — if at all.
“Candidates of color have to make a choice pretty early on in their campaigns about whether or not they’re going to run a deracialized campaign, meaning they don’t talk about race, they try and present themselves as just American,” she said.
The counter to a deracialized campaign is a race-conscious campaign.
In a race-conscious campaign, Hancock explained, candidates embrace their racial and ethnic identity, and the way they talk about the issues that they support is often in a way that talks about their experience as a person of color.
“That decision that candidates of color have to make does not apply to most white candidates,” Hancock added. “However, there is a parallel structure among female candidates. So it’s not that it’s unique to race, but that is very much a decision that Ramaswamy has to make.”
McLaughlin, the Ramaswamy spokesperson, said that the candidate will not “bow to identity politics a lot of folks want to play these days.”
Though Ramaswamy says that racism exists — including racism against white people — he has also said that it’s a dying issue.
“Is there existing racism in the United States? Of course, there is. But those [are the] last burning embers of racism — the last thing I want to do is throw kerosene on it,” Ramaswamy said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
He has pushed for a “colorblind equality, colorblind meritocracy” and promised to repeal former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s executive order 11246, which prohibits federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or national origin.
And, despite the fact that reports have found white supremacy to be on the rise, Ramaswamy has expressed that he doesn’t believe in the existence of white supremacists.
“I’m sure the boogeyman white supremacist exists somewhere in America. I’ve just never met him. Never seen one, never met one in my life, right?” Ramaswamy said at a town hall in Iowa. “Maybe I’ll meet a unicorn sooner. And maybe those exist, too.”
Such comments could pose political risks for him in the long run. While Ramaswamy has seen his star rise in the GOP primary, controversial remarks like the ones he’s made regarding race could prove a harder pill to swallow for the general electorate were he to win the nomination.
Republicans have made a considerable effort in recent years to broaden their appeal with voters of color, including Black and Latino voters. But they have also been hit with controversy over race-related remarks from within their own ranks.
In once instance earlier this year, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a Republican from Alabama, sparked a firestorm when he said that white supremacists are not inherently racist — comments that drew pushback from GOP leaders. And Trump, widely viewed as the standard-bearer for his party, has frequently been accused of racism.
Ramaswamy’s controversial remarks threaten to add to the image that some have of the GOP as a party unwelcoming or even hostile to nonwhite voters.
McLaughlin said that Ramaswamy is not denying racism exists, but rather that too many in politics weaponize racism.
“I think Vivek has talked a lot about that there are people in this country who profit off of racism and they want to fan the flames of a dying issue, which should be racism in this country, because they line their pockets from it,” she said. “I think a lot of people in this country are afraid to say some of those things because one of the greatest charges in modern America is to be called a racist and so many in politics weaponize that.”
Still, advocates argue much of his rhetoric is not only racist, veering toward sexist in some cases, but also dangerous.
The Congressional Black Caucus called Ramaswamy’s comments toward Pressley “beyond dangerous,” while others have said physical harm could come to those targeted by such rhetoric.
“There is a long history of violence against female elected officials in particular,” Hancock said. “We don’t have to go too far back in history to think about what happened to Paul Pelosi because someone was looking for Nancy Pelosi. So the ginning up of this antipathy against elected officials can absolutely lead to violence.”
Weathersby, of American Bridge PAC, pointed out that such rhetoric also ignores systemic issues that plague Black and brown communities that face violence.
“What’s dangerous here is that you run the risk of making life even harder for folks that are up against the eight ball by not acknowledging some of the systemic issues in our country along the lines of race,” Weathersby said.
McLaughlin dismissed the idea that anything Ramaswamy says is dangerous and instead said the “stranglehold on free speech in this country” is the true danger facing democracy.
“Vivek isn’t afraid to say what he believes, and that’s going to make some people uncomfortable,” she said. “But this country was founded on radical ideas and that’s what Vivek is running to revive. He’s not running to be safe. He’s running with a mission to revive this country.”