Hoekstra Ad Revives Anti-Asian Strain in American Politics

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Political ads tend to be about one thing: pushing people’s buttons. Get a voter in the gut, and you’ve got him at the polls.

In tough economic times, a popular way to grab the white working class is by stirring up the us vs. them antagonism that simmers in the shadowy recesses of our lizard brains.

Resentment toward African-Americans has long been a focus of such appeals. Think Sen. Jesse Helms’s famous “white hands” ad from 1990, in which a Caucasian man’s hands are shown crumpling up a job-rejection notice as the narrator decries the quotas ostensibly championed by Helms’s (black) foe. More recently, Latinos have become the hot bogeyman.

One ethnic group largely exempt from such race baiting in recent years has been Asians. Widely regarded in the U.S. as a “model minority”—itself a bit of stereotyping—Asian caricatures have not generally been used to fan popular outrage. Until now. On Super Bowl Sunday, Michigan Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra unveiled a TV spot featuring a young Asian woman riding a bicycle through rice paddies. In pidgin English, the woman thanks Sen. Debbie “Spend-It-Now” (Stabenow) for weakening the U.S. economy vis-à-vis China with her free-spending ways.

With China bashing all the rage, perhaps this development was inevitable. In 2010, West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall’s opponent ran a Rahall-is-sending-jobs-to-China ad complete with tinkly “Chinese” music and close-ups of “Made in China” labels. Happily, Hoekstra’s effort to resurrect the yellow peril is so ham-fisted that it has drawn fire from fellow Republicans. Given current economic anxieties, however, his campaign is unlikely to be the last to take this low road.

'Yellow Peril'

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Chinese race baiting in modern politics is really just a new twist on an old bigotry.

The flood of Chinese laborers into the Western U.S. in the mid-1800s led to fears that the “coolies” were depressing wages. The Workingman’s Party labor union adopted the slogan, “The Chinese must go!” Congress, in turn, passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned the immigration of ethnic Chinese and denied those already here the privilege of pursuing citizenship. The law was not repealed until 1943.

Many newspapers of the time decried the “yellow peril.” One 1899 political cartoon depicted a crazy-eyed Chinese man, standing astride the bloody corpse of a woman, a smoking gun in his hand and a bloody dagger in his teeth. The caption: “The Yellow Terror in all his glory.”

Noxious Air

A 30-year survey of congressional races that included minority candidates examined what percentage of campaign ads featured potentially racist stereotypes.

Race in Campaign Ads Based on data from Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns by Charlton D. Mcilwain & Stephen Maynard Caliendo (temple, 2011)

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