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Baltimore mayor faces racist attacks after bridge collapse

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott talks with the media after a cargo ship ran into and collapsed the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, 2024.
Rob Carr
/
Getty Images
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott talks with the media after a cargo ship ran into and collapsed the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, 2024.

Shortly after Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed in the middle of the night, Mayor Brandon Scott arrived on the scene to deliver remarks on the state of affairs.

The 39-year-old incumbent – sporting a City of Baltimore varsity jacket – spoke to the importance of praying for those who had been affected by the deadly collapse and acknowledging the efforts of first responders who sprang into action to rescue survivors.

But as the clip of the young, Black mayor's speech circulated online, many critics on the right shifted the focus from the content of Scott's words or the economic and infrastructure implications of a bridge crumbling in a major metropolitan area, to attacks on Scott's race.

Rather than discussing how such a catastrophic collapse could happen, these accounts decried the bridge's failure as a result of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies and zeroed in on Scott's mayorship to blame.

"This is Baltimore's DEI mayor commenting on the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge," one popular account wrote on X (formerly Twitter), accompanying a video of the mayor's speech. "It's going to get so, so much worse. Prepare accordingly."

Phil Lyman, a Utah Republican and gubernatorial candidate, broadened his attack to include Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, who is also Black. Lyman wrote: "This is what happens when you have Governors who prioritize diversity over the wellbeing and security of citizens."

Ignoring that public officials are elected – not hired – and Scott won the 2020 mayor's race with a landslide 70 percent of the vote, the vitriol playing out in rightwing spaces highlighted growing tensions stemming from efforts to promote fair hiring and labor practices in workforces and higher education.

While there is a decades-long history of institutions implementing policies to seek fairness for minorities, the phrase DEI grew in popularity, and controversy, particularly after the 2020 murder of George Floyd and subsequent national conversations about the way non-white Americans are treated compared to their white counterparts.

But as the attacks on Baltimore and its mayor spread, many Black social media users drew humor from what they saw as a coded way to attack minorities simply by virtue of their skin color.

"They're really calling the Baltimore Mayor a DEI Mayor," one X (formerly Twitter) user wrote with a laughing emoji. "Just say slurs at that point bro."

Another mused: "They used to be Lyndon B. Johnson with the slurs straight to ya face. Now, they hide behind terms they don't even know."

As backlash against the backlash rose, many jokingly "reclaimed" the term DEI, as a stand-in for the less socially acceptable N-word.

In an interview with MSNBC's Joy Reid, Scott acknowledged that he had seen the attacks on his administration and pushed back against accusations that he had been handed his role simply based on his race.

Wearing a purple "From Baltimore With Love" hoodie, Scott put his own spin on the term.

"What they mean by 'DEI,' in my opinion, is duly elected incumbent. We know what they want to say. But they don't have the courage to say the N-word," Scott said.

"And the fact that I don't believe in their untruthful and wrong ideology, and I am very proud of my heritage and who I am and where I come from, scares them. Because me being in my position means that their way of thinking, their way of life, of being comfortable while everyone else suffers is going to be at risk."

"And they should be afraid because that is my purpose in life."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Alana Wise
Alana Wise covers race and identity for NPR's National Desk.