Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Calling on McCain to talk about race

Calling all journalists in cyberspace: can you please start asking John McCain to talk about race? I know that there has been scrutiny placed on both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama over the topic of "race" during this presidential election season. But has anyone asked John McCain about his views on race in America? Don't we think that he HAS opinions about race in America?

The other day a friend and I were talking about the remarkable speech on race delivered by Barack Obama last Tuesday. And she said that he was the only person qualified to talk about race in the way he did--honestly, openly, directly--among the presidential contenders. I agreed, but then I pointed out that there was one other person. I pointed out that John McCain was in a unique position to also talk about his experiences with race in America--most specifically, his relationship with the Vietnamese American community, in particular, and Asian Americans, in general, regarding his use of the slur "gook" back in the run-up to the 2000 presidential elections, when McCain's "Straight Talk Express" took him to use the racial slur, unabashedly--telling reporters that:

"I hate the gooks. And I will hate them as long as I live. You can quote me on this."

I have to say this for McCain--he is a "Straight Talker," if by straight talk you are unabashed in your use of hate-speech.

He immediately issued an apology as the Straight Talk Express headed into the multiracial (and heavily Vietnamese American populated) state of California. And eight years later, very few people (except for some random blog sites and chat boards) seem to have remembered this flap, which also received very little press eight years ago. For more on the original incident back in 2000, you can read about it in The Nation (which also details the free "pass" that McCain seems to have gotten from the news media back in 2000, and which seems to echo the treatment he's getting now), an Orange County article about a small protest by Asian American students, and a San Jose Mercury News piece that also has an excellent op-ed by William Wong at the bottom.

[Aside: if you click on the link for the chat board--the discussion (which began a month ago) is VERY DISTURBING and points to the ways in which anti-Asian sentiment doesn't seem to disturb very many people. In addition to using the phrase "gook" continually, other people have added the full list of racial slurs against Asians, and others recount stories of harassing and beating up Asian American kids they grew up with. Apparently, this is a source of humor, and yet I can't find anything funny about violence and racial profiling]

So why am I bringing it up now?

Because lets imagine that his apology was sincere--that he only meant to refer to the "gooks" he hated as his North Vietnamese torturers (the Asian American studies professor in me has to switch off the critical thinking/skeptical part of my brain here). Lets imagine that he really hasn't used that racial epithet again (or at least in public) and that he has truly worked with the Vietnamese American community in their anti-communist agenda. [aside: these are all things included in his apology--that when he used the phrase "gook" it was meant to refer to his captors rather than to all Vietnamese people or to Asians in general, and McCain is often popular among Vietnamese (specifically South Vietnamese Americans) living in the U.S. for his anti-communist positions--with some leaders going so far as to say that if you are anti-McCain you are pro-communist.]

This places McCain in a unique position to talk openly and honestly about race. To talk about the challenges of being able to distinguish between an enemy abroad during a time of war and a community of people living in the U.S. It would also give him the opportunity to descry anti-Asian violence, since much of anti-Asian violence starts with mistaken ethnic identity (like that enacted against Vincent Chin and others--like Ming Hai "Jim" Loo--a Chinese American man attacked in Raleigh, NC by two brothers who stated that they "hate all Vietnamese").

So why aren't we asking McCain how to have a clear dialogue on race in this country? Shouldn't the man riding (and running) the Straight Talk Express bus be the ideal person to talk, openly, honestly, and directly, about race in America?


Brian Hunt said...

Wow. I completely missed his use of that slur back in 2000, and back then I was a McCain supporter. I can't say that I would have been had I heard about this.

Unfortunately his sentiments exist in a large segment of Vietnam vets. I have known men who avoid the Vietnamese barbers in my area for this very reason, even though their prices are half of what everyone else's are.

I am sensitive to Vietnamese immigrants and their off spring because I once dated a Vietnamese woman and knew that occasionally those feelings and resentments were directed at her. Thanks for calling attention to this. It would be nice to hear from McCain on this issue. I wonder if it will happen?

Jennifer said...

Brian--you are SO RIGHT that this sentiment exists in a number of Vietnam vets--and in a large segment of people who believe that McCain and other POW survivors and Viet Nam veterans are free to use whatever language they want because of their experiences.

And yet, this same type of logic and scrutiny does not seem to be applied to Reverend Wright--in other words, is anyone thinking through how his experiences with racism as a black man in this country has led him to come to the kinds of observations and conclusions that he has come to?

And beyond trying to apply the same type of logic to McCain, what I really am frustrated with is the lopsided nature of who is speaking about race and what people are saying.

The only surprise in all of this, for me, has been Huckabee--who, apparently, said that he really sympathized with Reverend Wright--that as a former pastor he understands getting caught up in the moment of passionate rhetoric and that Huckabee also thought Obama's speech was strong and eloquent. You could have blown me over with a feather when I read his statement. But I was glad to hear that some Republicans were not just toeing the party line when it comes to the topic of race.

Brian Hunt said...

Huckabee does seem to be a compassionate guy and decent enough fellow. I was glad to see him loose though because he's an evolution denier with a desire to turn the country into a Theocracy. Those are big hurdles to him as a Presidential nominee. I'm still hoping that he's not picked by McCain for VP.

Anonymous said...

Given that Huckabee is a Christian reconstructionist, it makes sense that he relates to Wright. The Christian recons also believe God takes issue with America! But for different reasons, like that the Bible should be the law of the land and that America should severely punish being lesbian/gay, having abortions, etc. :/

McCain's racial slur against the Vietnamese has had me recalling things from my own childhood. I grew up the child of liberal democrats in the 50s and 60s. (I was born in 1952.) My folks were dedicated anti-racists and taught me from my youngest years never to judge anyone on the basis of their race. Anti-black racial slurs, in particular, were treated as swear words in my house and were severely forbidden for everybody, including visitors. My dad was (and still is, though in his 80s now) an attorney, and he has always done much, much work on behalf of black people and Native Americans. As a young man he clerked for Judge Boldt, who authored landmark fishing rights decisions on behalf of tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

But he had a tremendous blind spot when it came to the Japanese and Italians as a result of having served in the Army at the end of World War II. Not infrequently, despite his dedication to the Civil Rights movement, he would make "jokes" which involved calling the Japanese "gooks" and Italians "wops". It stuck out to me all of my life because it was so out of character and inconsistent with his anti-racist principles. When he made these references, he would laugh, as though he were making a forbidden joke, but still, as though he relished making the joke. To me this is just another evidence of the horror of war and the military in general. We're seeing troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to abuse their wives, to commit suicide, to act out violently. McCain, tortured, defends hate speech. My dad, who served in Japan in WWII, used hate speech even though he always opposed it. It only makes sense that young people trained to kill and to go to war will be deeply harmed in all sorts of ways.

Jennifer said...

Wow...thanks so much for sharing, so honestly and openly and directly, this memory about your father and your own thoughtful reflection about the complexity of those who use racial slurs and their experiences in war.

Your recollection--and the nuance of your comment--is what I had hoped to discuss on this blog. Because I think it'd be easy to say that anyone who uses racial slurs is a racist. But the "truth" is often much more complicated. Our lives our much more complex. Good people--who work hard on anti-discrimination, like your father--can also have blind spots in certain areas.

And your analysis--linking his use of certain slurs to his experience as a veteran in WWII is also illuminating in terms of the trauma of war that veterans experience.

And for this reason, I, agree, that McCain is in a unique position to talk about race--to talk about it with respect to war and the ways in which war dehumanizes the enemy "other" and the ways in which it's hard to separate this dehumanization after war is over--the lingering after-effects.

And, for this reason (as you suggest in your comment), it's really important to think about what the ramifications will be with our veterans of the Iraq war and this seemingly never-ending "war on terror" -- which seems to be a not-so-hidden coding of war on Muslim/Arab people.

I just wish we could have more discussion of this -- the costs of war that exceed the fatalities on either side.

The Constructivist said...

Even in blogging on something as trivial as women's golf, it has shocked me to discover how normalized anti-Asian discourses are in U.S. culture. It shouldn't, but it does. It'll be interesting to see how my daughters respond, to say the least.