Allen And The “Macaca” Incident (Video)

For someone that is typically derided as, er, not that worldly, Sen. George Allen is sure being given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his knowledge of really obscure ethnic slurs. At a recent campaign event, Allen referred to a Webb campaign operative named S.R. Sidarth that was sent to videotape the event as “Macaca or whatever his name is.” Macaca, according to The Washington Post, “is…considered a racial slur against African immigrants” in some “European cultures” according to “several Web sites that track ethnic slurs.”

In other words, it is a slur but we had to be told it is slur by the people that track all the slurs from around the world.

And apparently I’m in trouble too because the other day I ordered a Whopper at BK and “whopper” is an ethnic slur (according to the list of ethnic slurs) in Denmark for “a female American tourist” that’s “usually overweight.”

Get my drift?

Here’s video of Allen’s remarks so you can judge for yourself. But it seems to me that Allen called Sidarth “Macaca” because he had no idea what his real name was.

I’d also add that it doesn’t make much sense that Allen knowingly dropped an ethnic slur against the person videotaping him for his opponent.

In addition, Atrios is also making a big stink about Allen’s remark to Sidarth of “welcome to America and the real world of Virginia” and implying that Allen doesn’t see Sidarth as an American because he has dark skin. But again, if you watch the clip carefully, prior to making the “America” remark, Allen says that his opponent is “living inside the beltway” and thus seems to be implying by the “America” remark that the real America is found outside the beltway–coincidentally, exactly where Allen’s event happens to be convening. It’s not exactly an uncommon reference from politicians, after all.

UPDATE (James Joyner): Little in this incident makes sense to me.

Allen’s explanation is hard to swallow:

“Asked what macaca means, Allen said: “I don’t know what it means.” He said the word sounds similar to “mohawk,” a term that his campaign staff had nicknamed Sidarth because of his haircut. Sidarth said his hairstyle is a mullet — tight on top, long in the back.”

Sidarth Mohawk Photo So, Allen didn’t know the name and decided to make one up on the spot that reminded him–but presumably nobody in the audience–of “mohawk”? That’s just absurd. Especially since, Jane Hamsher (who knows something about racial slander) points out, Sidarth’s haircut doesn’t at all resemble a mohawk. [UPDATE 8/16: Actually, that appears to be a dated photo. Chad Dotson has a photo of Sidarth wearing . . . a mohawk. More here.]

Then again, the Post‘s reporting here leaves much to be desired.

At a campaign rally in southwest Virginia on Friday, Allen repeatedly called a volunteer for Democrat James Webb “macaca.” During the speech in Breaks, near the Kentucky border, Allen began by saying that he was “going to run this campaign on positive, constructive ideas” and then pointed at S.R. Sidarth in the crowd. “This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He’s with my opponent. He’s following us around everywhere. And it’s just great,” Allen said

Now, isn’t it interesting that WaPo doesn’t capitalize “Macaca”? After all, Allen’s clearly using it as a name, not a descriptor. If Allen had said “Mohawk” rather than “Macaca,” it’d still be capitalized in that context. Putting it in lower case, though, makes it seem more as if it was being used as a slur.

Ditto the headline: “Allen Quip Provokes Outrage, Apology – Name Insults Webb Volunteer.” It’s not the “quip” that’s supposedly insulting but rather the name.

This, too, is rather silly:

“I think he was doing it because he could, and I was the only person of color there, and it was useful for him in inciting his audience,” said Sidarth, who videotaped the event for the Webb campaign. “I was annoyed he would use my race in a political context.”

So, let’s assume Allen routinely refers to black people as “macaca.” How many people in Breaks, Virginia (“near the Kentucky border,” the Post helpfully notes) would get that reference?

And this is downright comical:

Steve Mukherjee, a spokesman for the Washington chapter of the Association of Indians in America, said Allen’s comments were “hurtful,” and he chided the senator for not being more sensitive. “The world is so volatile and so delicate,” Mukherjee said. “You have to be careful what you say and how you say it. The U.S. is no longer black and white.”

Asked what macaca means, Mukherjee said: “What it means, I don’t know. But it’s going to cause him some grief.”

So, a non-black from India is “hurt” by a racial slur for blacks common in “some European cultures” even though he doesn’t know what it means? Then again, Sidarth isn’t black, either.

Meanwhile, in the blogosphere, Jeffrey Feldman does some research and finds that if you type the search [“nigger” + “macaca”] into Google, it will return results with a racist context. Imagine that!

The politics of grievance never fail to astound.

UPDATE (James Joyner): Several commenters and a Democrat friend via email suggest that, given Allen’s heritage, he almost certainly knew what “macaca” meant. I would agree.

Greg is right when he says that it “doesn’t make much sense that Allen knowingly dropped an ethnic slur against the person videotaping him for his opponent.” The only thing that makes any sense to me is that this was much in the same vein as Dick Armey’s infamous “Barney fag” moment a few years ago, with his subconscious brain overriding his control in a free-flowing moment.

UPDATE (James Joyner): WaPo has a companion editorial piece entitled, “George Allen’s America – Whom it includes, and whom it doesn’t.” The money graph:

The idea that holding up minorities to public scorn in front of an all-white crowd will elicit chortles and guffaws? (It did.) The idea that a candidate for public office can say “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia!” to an American of Indian descent and really mean nothing offensive by it? (So insisted Mr. Allen’s aides.) Or perhaps the idea that bullying your opponents and calling them strange names — Mr. Allen twice referred to Mr. Sidarth as “Macaca” — is within the bounds of decency on the campaign trail?

This is outrageous posturing from a news outlet that is supposed to be providing objective coverage of the campaign. It is plainly absurd to suggest that Allen’s bantering with Sidarth was pandering to bigots in the crowd. He was teasing a cameraman from the opposition campaign there to spy on him. Further, Greg is right that the “real world of Virginia” is a Red State/Blue State – outside the Beltway/inside the Beltway reference, not a racial one. And, again, even if Allen new what “Macaca” meant (probable) and intentionally used it as a slur (highly unlikely), it’s virtually inconceivable his audience did.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2006, Race and Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
Greg Tinti
About Greg Tinti
Greg started the blog The Political Pit Bull in August 2005. He was OTB's Breaking News Editor from June through August 2006 before deciding to return to his own blog. His blogging career eventually ended altogether. He has a B.A. in Anthropology from The George Washington University,

Comments

  1. kvr says:

    Um, Mr Allen is of partial (white) african descent, and is very likely aware of what this means. And if it is so obscure, how is it that he came up with the word, given that it is so unusual. Or do you think calling someone a monkey in lieu of their actual in public is perfectly normal and usual? It is curious that you chose such a weak defense for his actions.

    It is also interesting to note that he has a pretty bad record on questions of minority civil rights. Given his record, this sort of remark on his part is not completely unexpected.

  2. jwb says:

    Comment in violation of site policies deleted. – JHJ

  3. jukeboxgrad says:

    “really obscure ethnic slurs”

    Not obscure to someone who speaks French. Allen speaks French. His mother is from Tunisia. Good luck convincing anyone that Allen doesn’t know that “macaca” means monkey.

    “Allen called Sidarth ‘Macaca’ because he had no idea what his real name was.”

    I guess your theory makes a lot of sense. Allen picked a word completely at random, and it’s simply an accident that the word he picked to describe a dark-skinned person happens to mean “monkey.”

  4. Derrick says:

    I know that not everyone is up on who George Allen really is and isn’t. But he isn’t some cowpoke, redneck southerner from the backwoods, but he is the son of George Allen, wealthy and worldly former head coach of the Washington Redskins, and a French Tunisian mother, as well as growing up in ritzy Palos Verdes, California. From all accounts “macaca” is a racial slur in the “n***er” and “camel jockey” type vain for North Africans which is frequently used in Tunisia. So, George has probably heard it from his background and knows what it means. Face it, guys from Palos Verdes, CA who sympathize with the confederacy probably have a race problem, and I’m guessing that his race problem unfortunately was captured on video tape.

  5. Alan says:

    “Whopper” has an alternate usage–for example a “big fat lie”–so someone might use it innocently, without intending a a racial slur.

    Macaca doesn’t. It is simply a racial slur–nothing else.

    Or do you think that Allen just put random syllables together when he happened to be pointing at and deriding a dark skinned man?

    Jesus.

  6. Patrick McGuire says:

    I am surprised that the Mohawks haven’t complained that they are being slighted. Maybe they are experiencing a ban on burning and so can’t get the smoke signals out.

  7. jpe says:

    The french language explanation sounds pretty compelling – in which case, what on earth could he have been thinking? Even if that isn’t the case, it struck me as a “hey, look at those foreigners with their goofy names!” kind of thing.

    Either way, he’s done himself some damage.

  8. Anderson says:

    I thought it was much ado about nothing until I heard about the French-slang angle.

    I think Allen thought he was cleverly using a “bad word” that no one would catch. Welcome to the Internet, jerk.

  9. DC Loser says:

    Most of the region’s immigrants live in its three biggest counties, each of which has a different demographic profile. Fairfax County has the region’s largest Asian immigrant population, which makes up more than half of its immigrants.

    SOURCE

    I guess Allen is going to lose the “macaca” vote come November.

  10. lily says:

    I’m really surprised –and disappointed– in the level of rationalizing displayed here. The point is that Allen was deliberately rude and and rude in a way that was focused on the ethnicity of his target. Why can’t you condemn that instead of playing all these word games?

  11. Trest says:

    It is important to remember that the Democrats are the party of racism. The party was founded on racism and Democrats like George Wallace and Harry Byrd were the biggest upholders of Jim Crow.

    Allen is a patriot and needs to expose the racism of Democrats–this is a total double-standard.

  12. DC Loser says:

    Yeah, he sure exposed it, nut.

  13. avid hunter says:

    Wow, That is hillarious. You really are reaching on this one. It’s amazing. You are a huge critic of the dems, but when one of our own sticks his foot down his throat, you swerve off the road of sanity. C’mon, you lose all credibility (for yourself and the rest of us on the right) when you defend this biggot. You are as bad as O’Reilly as a whiny excuse-maker for those who are “on your side”. [Remarks in violation of site policies deleted]

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  14. jwb says:

    Commenter banned for repeated violation of site policies.

  15. Trest says:

    ou really are reaching on this one. It’s amazing. You are a huge critic of the dems, but when one of our own sticks his foot down his throat, you swerve off the road of sanity.

    Whatever. You obviously don’t understand the history of the Democratic party. The seat that Allen holds was once held by the DEMOCRAT Harry F. Byrd who was one of the biggest Jim Crow apologists in the country. He was also an anti-democracy machine boss who stole countless elections.

    Allen was speaking off the cuff. His Democrat predecessor, however, actually AUTHORED the Southern Manifesto that basically said that Virginia should ignore the law and maintain segregation.

    Allen’s supposed “racism” is nothing compared to Byrd’s.

    Republicans continue to defend racial equality in the face of opposition. Think back to Pres. Bush’s comments just a couple of years ago responding to critics–largely Democratic–of his foreign policy:

    “There’s a lot of people in the world who don’t believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly…I believe that people whose skins aren’t necessarily — are a different color than white can self-govern.”
    http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/04/20040430-2.html

    The Republicans are the party of Lincoln–Democrats upheld the legacy of racism for years.

  16. Len says:

    And, again, even if Allen new what “Macaca” meant (probable) and intentionally used it as a slur (highly unlikely)

    How could he have known what the word meant and then not use it as a slur? I’m sorry, James, but the logic in that one just flew right over my head.

    Kind of like saying “I know what nigg** means, but I certainly don’t mean it as a slur when I call you one.”

  17. James,

    Isn’t their just a touch of bigotry on your part when you say “it’s virtually inconceivable his audience did”. I mean you are saying that they wouldn’t get an obscure reference that would be understood in certain European cultures. Perhaps they all vacation in the south of France and would very much get it.

    Or perhaps this whole things is a tempest in a teapot. Now which one of those two is most likely.

  18. James Joyner says:

    Len:

    As noted in an earlier update, “The only thing that makes any sense to me is that this was much in the same vein as Dick Armey’s infamous ‘Barney fag’ moment a few years ago, with his subconscious brain overriding his control in a free-flowing moment.”

    Anderson‘s alternate explanation, “Allen thought he was cleverly using a ‘bad word’ that no one would catch” is also plausible. Still, Greg’s original point that it would make little sense to deliberately hurl racial slurs at the guy carrying your opponent’s camera for the explicit purpose of catching you saying something you shouldn’t have is a good one.

  19. Brett says:

    James: The editorial page engages in editorializing; no surprise, and no different from any other paper. Allen deserves to be criticized for this remark, which, even if it seeped up from his subconscious, was weighted with nasty overtones. If the “party of Lincoln” really wants to be serious about this heritage, it needs to stop flirting with people like Allen who have an obvious nasty streak on the issue of race. Maybe at some point we can get Allen to talk not just about Lincoln but Grant, Sheridan, Sherman, and the other folks who actually implemented his policies.

  20. Trest says:

    Allen deserves to be criticized for this remark, which, even if it seeped up from his subconscious, was weighted with nasty overtones.

    Goodness gracious! As was pointed out above, Allen is a DIRECT DECENDENT OF AFRICA. His African heritage is equal to that of fellow first-generation son of an African immigrant, Barak Obama.

    Read the millionaire elitist Obama’s book “Dreams From My Father” and you’ll see him recounting numerous examples of him using the “n” epithet to describe people. I don’t remember liberals calling Obama out when he wrote that book in the mid-1990s. In fact, they asked the guy to speak at their Convention!

    This is double standard at its worse.

  21. Not only is it very common in France and French Africa, it is also used in White Power circles and I have a couple reports from Indians in Virginia they had it used against them in a derogatory way.

    Allen’s presidential ambition’s were based on being a bit smarter George Bush, a good ol’ boy who pretends he’s from the South. This was pure dumbness on a Dubya scale. Combined with his questionable background on race issues – displaying a lynching noose and a Confederate flag in his office, this gaffe isn’t going away.

  22. betbart says:

    The kid clearly had, at least at one point, a haircut which someone really stupid might call a mohawk. Unfortunately, mohawk sounds nothing like macaca, and there is no way to confuse the two words.

    It’s the excuses here that are silly, not the idea that he might have slurred a kid.

    Did he not know the kids’ name? Sounds like…. but that doesn’t preclude him then making up a term to call him by and happening on a slur.

    Is it really so impossible that he would say something stupid on camera? Are you KIDDING? People make gaffes and say stupid things on camera ALL THE TIME!!! If anything, it’s easier to do it on camera because the pressure of performing makes your brain wig out.

    Does the obscurity of the term and the fact that it took Webb’s people time to realize what it meant help Allen? No: it HURTS him. It just highlights how coincidental that he happens to have just exactly the rare background that would know exactly what the term means.

  23. Jim says:

    On Hardball last night, Chris Matthews made a very good point about the hypocrisy in American politics concerning race. We (well really the press) get all bent out of shape when a politician makes a “racist” comment, but when we as voters get behind the curtain in the booth, all other things being equal, we generally push the button for the white guy. I think most of the American electorate (and especially Republicans) are, to varying degrees, racist and anti-ethnic (what’s really driving the immigration debate?) so I don’t think this is necessarily going to hurt Allen all that much at the ballot box, particularly with his base and most Virginians.

  24. I frequently use the phrase “whip your monkey ass” in friendly competitions. I don’t mean it in a racial sense, but more in an incompetent sense: “you have roughly the skill of a monkey”. It’s basic trash-talk.

    Some time ago, I said this at a videogame competition, and my opponent – a black man with whom I was not personally acquainted – took offense. I understand exactly why he took offense; “monkey” is indeed a pejorative term for blacks, and it is in fact used that way, but that is not how I meant it.

    However, it is next to impossible to convince someone that you didn’t mean it the way he understood it.

    As far as I’m concerned, racism is natural and normal, and if you’re NOT racist you cannot possibly know much about the culture of other races. Since those cultures are different, you are naturally going to prefer some over others, and you will normally prefer those with which you are most familiar. Since you cannot possibly be intimately familiar with every culture, a lack of racism must by definition stem from a profound *ignorance* of how races and their cultures differ.

  25. Opiyo Jok says:

    Goodness gracious! As was pointed out above, Allen is a DIRECT DECENDENT OF AFRICA. His African heritage is equal to that of fellow first-generation son of an African immigrant, Barak Obama.

    Trest

    You must be joking. Senator Allen’s mother was a FRENCH NATIONAL “living” in NORTH AFRICA, which is quite a different reality and history than an African (born and raised in – you guessed it – Africa and not Europe). Besides, North Africa is quite a different reality than sub-Saharan.

    The level of discrimination heaped on the poor unsuspecting French in America has traditionally taken the form of boycotting wine and renaming “liberty fries” whereas acts of exclusion and persecution against black Africans from the sub-Saharan region has been slightly more, how shall I say?, visceral.

    Also, no one in their right mind would consider Allen “black,” so the slur (which in French North Africa is reserved for darker skinned people with sub-Saharan features who occupy a lower socio-economic status) is actually aimed at an ethnic group different from his own.

    A more apt analogy with Barak Obama would be if he referred to, say, Indians living in East Africa in a derogatory manner.