Do the Media Contribute to Anti-Asian Rhetoric by Politicians?

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Author: 
Nadra Kareem Nittle
February 15, 2012

Throughout the campaign season, Republican candidates have repeatedly cited China as an economic threat to the United States, and some have run political ads that civil rights groups say are xenophobic and racist. Concern is growing that such attacks may lead to more discrimination, or perhaps violence, against Asian-Americans.

On Super Bowl Sunday, Pete Hoekstra, a Republican former member of Congress and now a senatorial candidate in Michigan, ran a statewide campaign ad featuring an Asian actress “thanking” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., for sending American jobs to China.

“Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs,” the actress says, accompanied by Chinese-sounding music while perched on a bicycle after riding on a path next to rice paddies. After a public outcry that the ad played on Asian stereotypes, Hoekstra stopped running it and deactivated a companion website with Asian themes.

Before candidate Jon M. Huntsman Jr. dropped out of the 2012 presidential race in mid-January, supporters of the candidacy of Rep. Ron Paul, D-Texas, launched an online video ad questioning Huntsman’s “American values.” The video shows the former U.S. ambassador to China and Singapore speaking Mandarin with one of his two adopted Asian daughters and characterizes him as “The Manchurian Candidate.”

Civil rights and human rights leaders are expressing concern that the media are not doing enough to counter these attacks.

In fact, Asian-American activists say the mainstream media can counter harmful anti-China messages by featuring Asian-Americans more often in news features and programming, showing that they have suffered during the recession like everyone else and analyzing why ads such as Hoekstra’s are offensive.

Moreover, activists say the current U.S. political climate puts Asian-Americans in a vulnerable position since the public often fails to distinguish between Asians abroad and Americans of Asian descent. Accordingly, some Americans may not only regard China as the enemy but also anyone they perceive to be Chinese, potentially leading to hate crimes.

Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action based in San Francisco and Sacramento, says he took action against the Hoekstra ad because “it legitimizes unfounded fear and often hate against Chinese-Americans and more broadly Asian-Americans.” 

While Americans of Chinese descent may have little in common with Chinese nationals,  Pan says that Asian-Americans have long been viewed as “perpetual foreigners” in the United States and that the West has historically painted Asia as a threatening place, drawing on such terms as the “yellow peril.” He adds that while Hoekstra’s offensive ad is an issue, a perhaps bigger problem is that Michigan television stations agreed to run the ad, despite its flagrant and offensive Asian stereotypes.

“It’s a sign of how much work we have to do,” Pan says, adding that what impact ads such as Hoekstra’s will have on the Asian-American community remains unclear.

Bruce Reyes-Chow, a Presbyterian minister and blogger in San Francisco, fears the worst. He wrote a widely circulated essay recalling the 1982 slaying of Vincent Chin by two Michigan autoworkers who blamed the Japanese for their unemployment. Chin was of Chinese descent, but his out-of-work killers targeted him for looking like “the enemy.”

The essay suggested that the Hoekstra ad and other attacks on Asian countries could incite violence against Asian-Americans. “I have a lot of friends who are in Michigan who have said, ‘Wow, we are repeating exactly what happened before,’ ” Reyes-Chow says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some form of violence happened because of all of this anti-China rhetoric. Still, I certainly hope it doesn’t.”

Reyes-Chow says the Hoekstra ad was especially irresponsible because Hoekstra is a candidate for public office rather than a member of an extremist group. Reyes-Chow would like to see media outlets make more connections between today’s anti-China rhetoric and anti-Japan rhetoric of the 1980s.

The media can take relatively easy steps to humanize the Asian-American community, according to Pan. “Having more coverage of diverse communities helps break down harmful stereotypes,” he says. “Reporters shouldn’t only write about Asian-Americans on Chinese New Year.”

Christine Chen, founding and current executive director of Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote (APIAVote) based in Washington, D.C., agrees. She encourages news outlets to include communities of color in everyday coverage.

“When the media talk about American issues—whether we’re talking about jobs, the economy or healthcare—it would be really great to see how it impacts Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans,” Chen says. “We’re part of the story. People can see we’re part of the American fabric. We’re your neighbors.”

Chen notes that the recent wave of media attention to New York Knicks basketball player Jeremy Lin, an American of Taiwanese descent, marks one of the rare times an Asian-American is spotlighted in the news.

She says that if media coverage of Asian-Americans is not balanced, the public will be more likely to accept stereotypes fueled by Hoekstra’s ad. Chen’s organization, has asked politicians to sign a pledge vowing to refrain from race-baiting in their campaigns.

Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund based in New York, says Americans of all ethnic backgrounds should voice their opposition to racist imagery and language in political campaigns. “I think we need to be very vocal and vigilant when this kind of rhetoric is used and call out the people who are using it, Democrats or Republicans or any other group,” she says.

Fung contends that discussing China as an economic rival is possible without fueling stereotypes. She says politicians such as Hoekstra have used the politics of fear instead of discussing legitimate political issues. “It’s a diversion towards racial rhetoric which is irrelevant and harmful to the political debate.”

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