Racist Rhetoric Hounds South Asian Candidates, Report Finds

Racist Rhetoric Hounds South Asian Candidates, Report Finds

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Over the past decade, immigrant and minority communities have begun to flex their political muscle. The 2008 election, for example, demonstrated that minority and new American voters are a sizeable electorate. While the outlook for increased political participation remains optimistic, a simultaneous process of “othering” of minority communities continues to exist in the political sphere.

Xenophobic and racist rhetoric has been part of our country’s political life for hundreds of years. South Asians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Arab Americans are the newest targets. South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)’s new report, “From Macacas to Turban Toppers: The Rise in Racist and Xenophobic Rhetoric in American Political Discourse,” documents statements targeting South Asian, Arab American, Muslim, and Sikh communities by elected officials and those running for public office. These statements range from the use of racial slurs such as “raghead” to describe South Asian candidates running for public office to the support of policies such as racial profiling that would target our communities.

Our report demonstrates that these comments have been on the rise since September 11, 2001. One blatant example occurred shortly after September 11 when former Representative John Cooksey from Louisiana stated that if “someone who comes in that’s got a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around the diaper on this head, that guy needs to be pulled over.” Representative Cooksey’s statements were harmful because they not only degraded religious symbols worn by Sikhs or Muslims, but also supported an approval of religious and racial profiling.

Generally speaking, xenophobic comments cast community members into four categories: as national security threats; as outsiders and foreigners; as political liabilities; and as unsuitable for political office. This rhetoric usually peaks during election years. In fact, since the Park51 cultural center controversy that occurred this summer, SAALT documented at least 23 comments opposing its construction because it was connected to Islam. That this debate became a political wedge issue is demonstrated by the fact that it resonated well beyond Lower Manhattan – from North Carolina to Tennessee to California, public officials linked Muslims to terrorists; incidents of hate crimes and vandalism were reported; Quran burnings were planned; and mosque construction was questioned or stopped.

As the midterm elections approach, the current climate of xenophobia in our country has also extended to the campaigns of South Asian candidates. In 2010, six South Asians are currently running for Congress and one is running for a gubernatorial seat. While the participation of community members in the political arena has been rising and has even garnered significant public attention, the number of remarks playing on race-and religion-based stereotypes against South Asian, Muslim and Sikh candidates has also followed a similar trajectory. Tactics have included attacking the actual or perceived religions of candidates; utilizing image-altering techniques to make candidates appear “darker”; and questioning candidates’ “roots.”

Recent examples include a statement by Mike Pompeo, a Congressional candidate in Kansas, who posted onto Twitter a link to a blog post that included the following about Raj Goyle, his opponent: “This guy could be a muslim, a hindu, a Buddhist etc who knows, only God, the shadow and ...goyle knows! One thing’s for sure…goyle is not a Christian! This goyle character is just another ‘turban topper’ we don’t need in congress or any political office that deals with the U.S. Constitution, Christianity and the United States of America!”

Nikki Haley, a candidate running for governor of South Carolina, has also been vilified for her Sikh background. Jake Knotts, state senator from South Carolina, described her as “[a] f---ing raghead…[w]e got a raghead in Washington; we don’t need one in South Carolina…[s]he’s a raghead that’s ashamed of her religion trying to hide it behind being Methodist for political reasons.” Such statements convey the notion that political candidates of South Asian descent are outsiders who are different from their constituencies. Consequently, South Asian political candidates have to overcome additional hurdles and run a different type of race.

As political parties and candidates begin to consider the influence of the emerging electorate pool, it is important not to underestimate the chilling effects that xenophobic rhetoric can have on maintaining the full civic and political involvement of communities of color and new American voters.

Deepa Iyer is the executive director and Priya Murthy is policy director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a national nonpartisan non-profit organization whose mission is to elevate the voices and perspectives of South Asian individuals and organizations in the United States to build a more just and inclusive society. SAALT also coordinates the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations.