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Macacas and Turban Toppers: Xenophobic Rhetoric and the 2010 Elections

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By Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of  South Asian American Leading Together, Race-Talk contributor,

Over the past decade, immigrant and minority communities have become a political force, and candidates and elected officials are paying attention. In fact, communities of color are now a sizeable segment of the voting population, and an increasing number of minority candidates are seeking elected office. Yet, even as we have become more civically and politically vested in the country’s future through voting and running for office, our communities are simultaneously and constantly cast as foreigners within the broader political discourse in America.

Xenophobic and racist rhetoric in the political sphere is sadly not a new phenomenon in this country and frequently re-emerges with vigor every election cycle. In recent years, South Asians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Arab Americans have become 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. Tactics range from using racial epithets such as “raghead” to describe South Asian candidates to labeling our communities as violent to supporting policies such as racial and religious profiling that unjustly target our communities.

On the eve of this year’s midterm elections, the current climate of xenophobia in our country has played out in races involving South Asian candidates. In 2010, six South Asians are currently running for Congress and one is running for a gubernatorial seat. While the political activity of community members has been growing, the number of remarks exploiting race-and religion-based stereotypes against South Asian, Muslim and Sikh candidates has also been on the rise. Tactics have included attacking the actual or perceived religions of candidates; utilizing image-altering techniques to make candidates appear “darker”; and questioning candidates’ “roots.”

In one recent example, Mike Pompeo, a Congressional candidate in Kansas, posted onto Twitter a link to a blog post that included the following about Indian-American 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!” Even in the waning days leading up to the elections, a billboard emerged in Wichita emblazoned with “Vote American, Vote Pompeo” and “True Americans vote for Pompeo.” The underlying message is clear: an Indian-American candidate is not a genuine American.

Such rhetoric has affected candidates of South Asian descent on both sides of the aisle. Nikki Haley, a Republican candidate running for Governor of South Carolina, has also been vilified for her Sikh background. State Senator Jake Knotts called 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 the full civic and political involvement of new American voters and on candidates from our communities.

Read SAALT’s report for recommendations on how to stem the tide of racist and xenophobic rhetoric. For more information, visit www.saalt.org.###
Deepa Iyer is the Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together.  SAALT is 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 coordinates the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations.