Hail Macaca!

Welcome to America, George Allen, and remember: "Don't f--- with Indians."


Andrew Leonard
November 9, 2006 10:34PM (UTC)

Political junkies will be arguing for years to come over what influence Macaca-gate had on the Virginia senatorial race (and by extension, Democratic control of the Senate). For many observers, George Allen's bizarre comments opened a window on his long record of racist behavior, and in an election that turned on just a few thousand votes, the gaffe was pivotal.

For Indian-Americans, many of whom are now rejoicing at the election results, the macaca slur was more than just the most recent revelation of Allen bigotry. It was a cultural turning point -- a crystallizing moment of identity politics. Where the rest of the world saw dumb racism, Indian Americans saw themselves, on the global media stage -- a sight both disheartening, because of the circumstances, and invigorating, because of the result.

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At Ultrabrown, Manish Vij, who has been blogging every twist and turn of Macaca-gate with the same intensity that right-wing bloggers stalk Hillary Clinton, summed up his take this morning:

One of the most lasting effects of this campaign is that slurring desis is now seen as a political live wire, just as insulting blacks has been since the Civil Rights Movement and slurring East Asians has been for the last couple of decades. Mandarins sitting around campaign war rooms will tell ghost stories to even the most insensitive of candidates. "Watch what you say about Indians," they'll say. "You remember what happened to Allen."

That may be overstating the case. The great irony of Macaca-gate, from an Indian-American point of view, is that George Allen likely had no idea as to the ethnicity of S.R. Siddharth. He saw someone dark-skinned and different and he blurted. But it doesn't ultimately matter what Allen might or might not have known. When he followed up his "macaca" with "Welcome to America" he hit a galvanizing nerve in the Indian-American community.

Amardeep, at the Sepia Mutiny blog, captured the impact eloquently:

As people looked up various possible definitions of the word macaca, they discovered that none of them are complimentary. Like most South Asians in the U.S., I immediately registered "macaca" as an insult, though I wasn't surprised that many others didn't see it that way. Eventually the mainstream consensus seemed to be that it was in fact an ethnic insult, and the next question for most South Asian Americans was, "will this matter to anyone?" Will anyone else be as offended by this as we are? More is at stake in that question than first appears. Behind it is a deep anxiety about acceptance and integration, about being equally valued and respected in American society. Everyone is on board (usually) if a public figure makes a remark that could be construed as hostile to other, more settled minority groups -- the hostile response to Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade this summer was essentially unequivocal. And Trent Lott's political career was derailed by a comment relating to Jim Crow. But are Virginians, and Americans in general, going to care about "macaca," which affects a newer, smaller, and less visible minority community? As the macaca story gathered steam, there was almost a sigh of relief as the answer appeared to be "yes." And now, if Jim Webb's slim lead holds following a probable recount in the coming days, it will be hard not to see this incident as a decisive factor in the election.

According to Amardeep, there are 77,000 South Asians in Virginia -- enough that in an election as close as this one turned out to be, their voting patterns might have made a difference. "Don't fuck with Indians," crowed one respondent to Amardeep's thoughtful post. But most of the contributors to the illuminating discussion that followed were reluctant to give South Asians credit for being the swing vote -- as another poster noted, hilariously, "A time will surely come when the gladhanding white politicians of this nation are mere puppets at the hands of a powerful South Asian cabal. But this is not that time. Save your applause."

And yet, near the very end of the campaign, James Webb was photographed making dosas "in an obvious move to appeal to the macaca voting bloc." Still, whether or not South Asians made a critical difference is not the point. The takeaway here is that Virginia, like the rest of the United States is becoming ever more ethnically diverse. Screw with that at your peril.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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