Jun 7, 2024 - News

Detroit lawmaker faces backlash for "Pookie and Ray Ray" comments

Detroit state Sen. Sylvia Santana at Black voters for Biden event at the Rev. Horace Sheffield's New Destiny Christian Fellowship on Grand River.

Detroit state Sen. Sylvia Santana at a Black Voters for Biden event at the Rev. Horace Sheffield's New Destiny Christian Fellowship on Grand River. Photo: Samuel Robinson/Axios

State Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) received harsh backlash on social media this week for comments that some say perpetuated stereotypes about poor Black people.

Why it matters: The Biden campaign is making a concerted effort to woo Black voters, whom they view as a crucial demographic in defeating former President Trump in November.

The intrigue: Santana urged guests at a Black Voters for Biden event Monday to convince their friends, family and associates to vote for Biden, saying: "Pookie and Ray Ray got their pants under their butt talking about they're voting for the other guy because of what they believe that is not real."

  • Hundreds of people criticized Santana's comments, which have been viewed nearly a million times on social media, saying it was a trope that is condescending and anti-Black.

What they're saying: "My comments were maybe not tailored correctly but I stand by what I said because that's who I'm thinking about — I'm thinking about my little brother," Santana told Axios in a phone interview Tuesday. "When I'm in Detroit and I'm talking to young people I will tell them to pull their pants up."

  • "Black votes change elections so to me it's important that people in our communities know their vote matters and that they don't just sit home, especially in this election where so much is at stake," Santana says.

Catch up quick: The phrase "Pookie and Ray Ray" was used by Barack Obama leading up to the 2008 presidential election to encourage low-income friends or neighbors who fit negative stereotypes about Black people to vote for Democrats.

  • Detroit native Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Vanderbilt who writes about race and culture, writes that Pookie is "nearly a pop-culture folk-figure in Black circles."

The other side: "Imagine if a white person said something like that," says Wayne Bradley, a conservative strategist who worked as a Black outreach director for MIGOP prior to Trump's election in 2016. "When you hear stuff like that, it makes people feel like that's all they see us as. "

  • Bradley says both Republicans and Democrats could benefit by asking young Black people about their needs, "because calling us Pookie and Ray Ray and bringing out a couple of indicted rappers is not how you motivate someone to go vote for you."
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