“Racist” Super Bowl Political Ad Under Fire (Updated)

Controversy over last year’s Groupon Super Bowl ad, which drew accusations of exploiting the plight of Tibet, was echoed on Sunday by a campaign ad for Michigan’s Pete Hoekstra, a prospective candidate for the US Senate. Aired around the state but circulated widely online, the ad depicted an ostensibly Chinese woman thanking Hoekstra’s opponent Debbie Stabenow in broken English for boosting the Chinese economy at America’s expense.

James Fallows opened fire at The Atlantic:

Let’s not even get into the logic of the ad — eg, the fact that China’s formula for creating jobs has involved more public spending and more public “guidance” of industry than America’s. Let’s skip to the bonus points for racial imagery in the ad, apart from the obvious.

1) The “Chinese” woman speaks in American-accented English, and I would bet she is actually an Asian-American. But the script has her make pidgin grammar errors, “Me likee!!”-style.

2) The ad’s words are about trade, budgets, and jobs, but its images are about — ‘Nam!! Of course some parts of southern China look the way this ad does, with rice paddies, palm trees, no big buildings, people wearing conical straw hats and bicycling along dike tops. But this is nothing like how the typical big-factory zone looks in China, or the huge cities that would exemplify Chinese wealth and the country’s rise — ie, the subjects of this ad. So why this rural setting? I think it’s because it offers a kind of visual dog-whistle, for those Americans who, either through experience or through Apocalypse Now-style imagery, associate smiling-but-deceptive Asians in a rice-paddy setting with previous American sorrow.

The accompanying website underlined the charges, hammering the point home with liberal use of takeaway-carton lettering. A brief post at Talking Points Memo noted that, in the page’s source code, images of the Asian woman are identified with the label “yellowgirl”: a possible reference to her shirt, but “probably just another level of the unfortunateness.” (See update below.)

Accusations soon arose that the Hoekstra campaign was deleting critical comments from its Facebook page. A spokesman, meanwhile, insisted that the ad was satirical, and that its use of broken English was intended to highlight China’s great achievements in language education. From Politico:

“You have a Chinese girl speaking English – I want to hit on the education system, essentially. The fact that a Chinese girl is speaking English is a testament to how they can compete with us, when an American boy of the same age speaking Mandarin is absolutely insane, or unthinkable right now,” Hoekstra spokesperson Paul Ciaramitaro told POLITICO. “It exhibits another way in which China is competing with us globally.”

America’s two million first-language Chinese speakers include a growing number who speak Mandarin, some of whom are presumably boys. In addition, there are some 60,000 elementary and secondary school students learning Chinese. These are not large figures compared with China’s 300 million English learners, but neither, perhaps, are they “absolutely insanely” or “unthinkably” small. Ciaramitaro continues:

“I think that China is our global competitor and the facts are what they are. They hold $1.1 trillion of our debt, their economy is booming, ours is not. It’s not a racial overtone to compare yourself to competitors on the global stage,” added Ciaramitaro. “I think the viewer of an ad is going to recognize satire. … I wouldn’t agree of the characterization [of the ad] as racial.”

FOX News’ Juan Williams suggested that the ad may have been a tactical error, with the controversy detracting from its intended message:

[Williams] sees the ad as a wasted opportunity for Hoekstra and not great publicity for the Republican party, “which is often accused of being insensitive toward immigrants.”

“Pete Hoekstra is a very bright guy, but what he is trying to get across here, his concerns about spending and debt, that’s now being obscured by charges of racism,” said Williams. “These charges of racism are resonating right now instead of his views on reigning in the national debt.”

While both Ciaramitaro and Hoekstra claimed that talk of race came from Democrats lacking a substantial response, criticism of the ad was refreshingly bipartisan. “Semi-defrocked senior GOP Political Consultant” Mike Murphy commented that it was “really, really dumb. I mean really“. While some Republicans attacked the ad’s tone or political wisdom, others accused Hoekstra of hypocrisy based on his own spending record. From The Associated Press:

GOP consultant Nick De Leeuw flat-out scolded the Holland Republican for the ad.

“Stabenow has got to go. But shame on Pete Hoekstra for that appalling new advertisement,” De Leeuw wrote on his Facebook page Sunday morning. “Racism and xenophobia aren’t any way to get things done ….”

“Saving America from the Washington, D.C., politicians who gave us this crippling debt and deficit crisis, Republican and Democrat alike, means Hoekstra and Stabenow should both get benched,” [Hoekstra's GOP Senate primary rival Gary] Glenn said in a release.

The Michigan Democrat Party has similarly focused on Hoekstra’s credentials as a crusader for low spending, playing up Republican and Tea Party accusations that he had supported big spending as a congressman and lobbyist.

As The Detroit Free Press’ Bob Campbell pointed out, the MDP has itself played the China card in the past, in a 2006 ad attacking GOP gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos for exporting jobs. The factories to which they were relocated were, again, curiously absent from the China on screen:

Hoekstra’s ad has so far attracted little attention on the other side of the Pacific, however. From Isaac Stone Fish at Foreign Policy:

… There is scant chatter of it on Sina Weibo or Tencent Weibo, the two most popular Twitter-like microblogging services. The NFL, lacking the popularity that Yao Ming brought to the NBA, is rarely watched in China anyway, and the ads this year that drew any attention were mostly car commercials.

Only a handful of Twitter users wrote about it in simplified Mandarin (the way Chinese is written in Mainland China, unlike the traditional characters which the Debbiespenditnow website inexplicably employs). One who did so is a software engineer working in the Netherlands who tweets under the name lihlii. “I don’t think it’s racist,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s about America losing jobs ….”

Those who did object to the ad generally did so in an American context. Michael Anti, a popular blogger who has lived in the U.S. as a Nieman Fellow, wrote on Twitter:

“I think the problem with the ad is that it’s racist, not anti-Chinese. As a Chinese I should be amused by this ad, because it seems more like Southeast Asia. But Chinese in America are easily enraged by that sort of prejudicial defamation of the image of a Chinese woman. Also, her English is not the Chinglish of a Mainland Chinese.”

Update: James Fallows noted that the “yellowgirl” reference in the site’s code has now been changed to “yellowshirtgirl”. On MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell took aim at “yellowshirtgirl” herself. From Mediaite:

“I want to know exactly what she was thinking,” he noted, and then turned back the Hoekstra, in effect accusing him of hiding behind her image and suggesting one thing is for him to expound ideas and another “for him to hire an actor to do his dirty work for him.”

“It can be stopped right now, tonight, by a pledge of simple decency that all member of the Screen Actors’ Guild can make,” he noted, putting his right hand up as to make a promise: “I will not play dirty politics… that means that you will not play a character in political ads.” After his attack on the actor in the video, however, he explained that many actors engage in such things because of money problems, recounting the story of an actor he once “talked out of playing Hitler’s daughter” by asking if, in the worst case scenario that that was the last part she ever played, she would want to be remembered by it. “I have done things that I’m not proud of,” he concluded, “but I have not done anything I am ashamed of.”

While the Hoekstra campaign insists that talk of race is a desperate evasion by Democrats, the ad’s argument has also received a sound thrashing. From Asia Society:

Yunfan Sun, Program Officer at the Center on U.S.-China Relations [pointed] out glaring flaws in Hoekstra’s polarizing “Pete Spend-it-Not” position.

“It is precisely the ‘Spend-it-Not’ mentality in the United States that has been sending jobs overseas, where cheaper labor and materials, as well as tax breaks, lead to increases in the bottom lines of big corporations,” Sun said. “And the fact that the U.S. government can’t or won’t spend on infrastructure is precisely why Chinese companies get to build things like new subway lines in New York City.”

The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos pointed out other problems:

For all the xenophobia and mistakes, the thing that might really worry a voter is that a man can get this far in the U.S. political system without a basic grip on the mechanics of his government. “You borrow more and more,” the N.P.S.A. [Nondescript Presumably Scary Asian] says. But that is false, says the U.S. Treasury. Chinese holdings of U.S. treasury bonds, in fact, declined from November of 2010 to November 2011. “China has not been a major buyer of U.S. treasury notes on the margin for a couple of years now,” Victor Shih, an expert on Chinese economics and politics at Northwestern University, told me.

When Hoekstra’s point collides with fact, he calls in the help of a large font: he describes China as “the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury securities”—which is true—but then describes China’s holdings as increasing from 9.6 per cent in 2002 to twenty-six per cent in 2010. A voter might blanch at the idea of a foreign country holding over a quarter of U.S. Treasury debt, except that it’s not true. The twenty-six per cent is China’s holdings among foreign holders, not overall debt, and “the overall share of treasury held by foreign entities declined in the past couple of years,” Shih told me. (“One thing that Americans have to realize is that China may be a net lender internationally, but the Chinese government and state-owned enterprises borrow a huge amount of money domestically,” Shih added. “The racist caricature of those thrifty Chinese who take advantage of debt-loving Americans is widely off the mark because China is one of the most indebted countries in the world.”)

February 7, 2012 3:38 PM
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