U.S. Representative Greg Pence of Indiana is being criticized by people on social media and by his political opponent Jeannine Lee Lake over racist collectibles sold in an antique mall he owns.
According to The Star Press, Lake posted a photograph of the items on Facebook, calling out Pence and his wife Denise, who runs the mall, for “profiting from hate.” The objects include antique coin banks of Black males with very dark skin, oversized red lips and bulging eyeballs along with banks of what Collectors Weekly calls “one of the most enduring Black sterotypes,” the mammy.
In her Facebook post, Lake, a Democrat, also said that people have “complained about the sale of Confederate signs, license plates and other items for a few years and Mr. Pence has refused to change his policies on these disgusting items, which sit on row after row of cabinets in both stores.”
Some people came to Pence’s defense online, saying “be upset with the merchants themselves who are selling such items.” Some even argued that “these items are worth a lot of money and amazingly are highly collectible by black America.”
Pence is distancing himself from the situation with spokesperson Milly Lothian saying, “As you may know, Congressman Pence is not engaged in the active management of the Exit 76 Antique Mall.”
In a statement CC’d to attorney Charlie Spies — who has given “strategic political law counsel at the highest levels” in Washington D.C. for more than twenty years — Pence said:
“Exit 76 Antique Mall is the Finest in the Midwest, with more than 600 vendors offering everything from traditional antiques and collectibles, to upscale furniture and fine jewelry, to primitives, artisan crafts, and trendy Mid-Century Modern accessories.”
“The Exit 76 Antique Mall is dedicated to providing the best service possible, to both our customers and our merchants. What sets us apart from other antique malls is we do NOT sell anything — we don’t compete against our merchants. Exit 76 Antique Mall posts, disseminates, and maintains an Offensive Material Policy, developed from Amazon, eBay and Etsy’s respective policies that…does not allow items that promote or glorify hatred, violence, racial, sexual, or religious intolerance, or promote organizations with such views.”
Commenters on Facebook seem to think differently, with one person saying they were a frequent visitor to Pence’s mall. They claimed after the George Floyd protests ignited across the country, “I found these everywhere. Most of which were brought out to the front of the booths to make sure they were visible. As if they thought it was funny during the current events.”
Chad Kinsella, an assistant professor of political science at Ball State University, suggested to The Star Press that Lake is calling out Rep. Pence, a Republican, as a political move to “draw a clear distinction between the two.”
“However, I am not sure this is the ‘smoking gun.’ I would guess that Rep. Pence … has little to do with the day-to-day operations” of the mall, Kinsella argued.
Charles Taylor, an associate professor of political science at the university, argued differently. He said that many politicians “like to claim their small business bona fides qualify them for service in Congress, so aspects of the way they run their business are fair game.” He added, “In today’s environment, there is a lot more focus on people’s attitudes about racial discrimination.”
Lake also explained that she wasn’t the first to call out the racist collectables. She said that at least four people complained about the memorabilia and Confederate flags in Pence’s mall prior to 2018 before he won his seat in Congress. However, their complaints were apparently not taken seriously.
“This was brought to our attention by constituents in the Sixth District who messaged us about these horrific things they saw,” explained Lake’s campaign manager Lori Morgan. One of the four people who complained was Margaret Lowe, a Methodist pastor from Greensburg. Lowe said she and her sister notified the manager of the Edinburgh mall about the racist items and Confederate flags and they were told that such merchandise sold well and nothing could be done about the situation.
“That was 12 years ago, and I haven’t been back since,” Lowe told The Star Press. Lowe also said in visits prior to that, “I had not seen these kinds of things,” attributing their popularity to 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.
Still, Pence seemed to be on the defense, quoting the mall’s offensive material policy in his statement:
“Exit 76 Antique Mall (We) intends to control the display and sale of materials that may are (sic) regarded as offensive materials. Exit 76 Antique Mall does not allow items that promote or glorify hatred, violence, racial, sexual, or religious intolerance, or promote organizations with such views.”
The policy continues:
“We will also remove items that portray graphic violence or victims of violence, unless they have substantial social, artistic, or political value. Per the guidance of this policy, we will perform periodic audits of merchant booths and cases for potentially offensive materials.”
David Pilgrim, the founder of The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, said that his museum uses racist objects like the ones in Pence’s mall to facilitate talks about race and racism.
However, he argued that it’s hard to use this justification for the items in Pence’s mall “because they are all modern reproductions, cheap reproductions.” He continued, “More likely, they are collected out of a nostalgic yearning for an imagined past, or they reflect a prejudice against Black people, or they represent the owners way of saying ‘No one tells me what to do or not do.'”
He added, “I do not tell anyone, politician or otherwise, if they should collect objects that defame and mock a race of people, but I would ask them, ‘Why do you sell, buy, or collect these objects?’ “