This month we got an unexpected peek into the mind of an incumbent Republican senator and 2008 presidential hopeful.
At a campaign rally, surrounded by a nearly all-white audience, Virginia Senator George Allen chose to publicly mock a young Indian-American student, 20-year-old S.R. Sidarth. This is what he said: “This fellow over here with the yellow shirt, macaca or whatever his name is …” Laughter. A few seconds later he repeated the slur: “Let’s give a welcome to macaca here. Welcome to America, and the real world of Virginia.” Gleeful applause.
Zoology students recognize “macaca” as a genus of monkey. Students of racism, willing or unwilling, recognize both terms as racial slurs applied to non-white people to suggest evolutionary inferiority. If you doubt this, ask an African American whether these words are harmless.
In the video, Allen repeats the term with a facility that belies his later protestations of innocence. Directed at the only non-white person in the audience, his words suggest that only white people can be full Americans. It doesn’t really matter that Sidarth was born and raised in the United States. What matters is that if you look different, you can be singled out for this type of bullying and patronizing talk, that too by a U.S. senator.
When challenged, Allen later backpedaled, saying he didn’t know what the term meant. How utterly disingenuous. He could ask his French-Tunisian mother, who would know that it is the same vile term French racists use to describe North Africans.
At a meeting with Indian-American leaders, Allen later apologized, but it seemed to be more about damage control than genuine contrition. This is a man with a troubling racist past: as an elected official, he opposed a Martin Luther King holiday, issued a proclamation for the Confederacy without mentioning slavery, and decorated his workspace with a noose hanging from a tree.
It is easy to focus on Allen and Allen alone, as if he is the only problem. As long as race-baiters like him continue to garner 51 percent or more of the votes, his voters bear the ultimate responsibility.
But in today’s America, where the president refuses to address the nation’s largest African-American organization five years in a row, where the treasonous leaking of a CIA operative’s identity remains unpunished, where instigating and stoking wars remain acceptable government policy, the small matter of a Republican incumbent’s racist ad-libbing appears par for the course.