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South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a nationally prominent advocacy organization, released a new report this week called “From Macacas to Turban Toppers: The Rise in Xenophobic and Racist Rhetoric in American Political Discourse.” The report collects more than 70 xenophobic statements made by public officials and candidates for public office in the last several years, concluding that “Xenophobia and racism have no place in political and civic discourse. Yet, a pattern of such rhetoric continues to exist in America’s political environment today.”
The title of the report refers to the “macaca” statement made by Virginia Senator George Allen in 2006, who used the racial epithet to point and laugh at a South Asian reporter at a campaign rally. “Turban topper,” a derogatory reference to the Sikh Dastaar, was used by South Carolina state senator Jake Knotts in June 2010 to refer to gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, a Christian with Sikh heritage. Other examples of the racist statements gathered in the report include Tennessee Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey’s infamous description of Islam as possibly unworthy of constitutional religious freedom protections at a campaign event in July 2010:
You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion or is it a nationality, way of life or cult, whatever you want to call it. We do protect our religions, but at the same time, this is something that we are going to have to face.
In August 2006, US Senator Conrad Burns from Montana said:
The United States is up against “a faceless enemy” of terrorists who “drive taxicabs in the daytime and kill at night.”
After cataloging these bigoted and otherwise xenophobic statements aimed at Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian American communities (along with broader anti-immigrant sentiments), SAALT finds three trends emergent in American political discourse. First, statements that paint these communities as a unique danger, a threat to national security. Second, statements that insist the United States does not welcome religious diversity. Third, statements that portray Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian Americans as ineligible for public office or as “political liabilities.”
SAALT notes that these statements are not benign debates, but instead this kind of rhetoric inevitably supports policies that discriminate by race and religion – profiling, surveillance, and detention policies that create harmful and unjust racialized disparities in American society. Moreover, hateful rhetoric often leads to measurable increases in hate crimes including murders and vandalism, discrimination in the workplace, and taken as a whole the phenomenon of xenophobic racism can contribute to a destructive alienation for individuals and communities.
The report offers concrete suggestions for public officials to improve political rhetoric, and it offers advice for community members looking for a way to increase political participation.
SAALT’s policy director and principal author of this report, Priya Murthy, also appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition this week to discuss the report. Listen to the story, “South-Asian Americans Discover Political Clout,” at NPR.org. The full report is available from SAALT.org.
This article first appeared at New Racial Studies.