August recess is a time for members of Congress to visit their home states, throw on their casual clothes and press the flesh of their constituents. The whole point of recess these days is to convince friends, acquaintances and strangers to spend their money and votes on the candidate.
Sen. George F. Allen is a candidate who wants Virginians to send him back to the Senate in November and to the White House in 2008. All he had to do during recess was go to a few fund-raisers, football games, barbecues and pressers, and be friendly and charming.
Allen was busy raising money and being charming with a group of Republican supporters Aug. 11 in Breaks, Va., when he started improvising. My opponent has never been to Breaks and probably would never come, Allen sneered, but he sent someone to video our campaign events.
That’s when Allen pointed to the young campaigner for Democrat James Webb and, gesturing dismissively, called him the disparaging name, “macaca” – not once, but twice.
I’m pretty sure it says on the first page of everyone’s campaign play book, “Don’t attack the constituents.” Since Allen has quite a reputation as a bully, his staffers must have written words to that effect for their boss in very big letters with magic markers.
Maybe Allen thought the young man behind the video camera didn’t count, because he wasn’t an Allen voter anyway.
Maybe Allen thought the young man with the brown face – the only one in the room of white faces – was a foreigner.
Maybe Allen didn’t think at all before he said, “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”
That “real world” of Breaks is in the western part of Virginia, at the Kentucky border. It’s in Dickenson County, which is 99 percent white, according to the 2000 Census. For the sake of comparison, Virginia was 72.3 percent white in that year and the United States was 75.1 percent.
The census-takers counted 16,322 people in Dickenson County at the start of the millennium, but could find only 58 blacks, 19 American Indians, 12 Asians, 70 Hispanics and nine people of “some other race.”
No wonder the Webb campaign staffer, S.R. Sidarth, stood out. As he later told reporters, he was the only person of color at the event.
Sidarth, 20, is a second-generation Indian-American. He grew up in Fairfax, Va., where Asians were 12 percent of the population in 2000 and whites were 66.7 percent, and where he was not a solitary person of color.
Sidarth is a senior at the University of Virginia, which is Allen’s alma mater. Oddly, Allen started sporting a Confederate flag lapel pin and whistling Dixie in his boyhood home in southern California, but it was at UVa that he started wearing his trademark footwear – expensive, high-heeled, pointed-toed cowboy boots that he might even call “macaca-kickers.”
Allen moved to Virginia in 1971, when his father, George H. Allen, started coaching the Washington professional football team with the dreadful name most American Indians despise.
In the early days of the lawsuit that I and six other Native people brought in 1992 against that disparaging name, the Washington football club would pick surrogates to debate us on radio and television. Their picks usually were overbearing white men with a sense of humor on the crude and cutting side.
Their job was to try to marginalize us and make us appear frivolous to the audience, but to do it with a smile.
Allen was one of their favorite surrogates. He would smile a shark-like smile, which he seemed to think was an innocent and sincere look, as he made pejorative remarks.
I saw that smiling, menacing style again on the video of Allen taken by Sidarth on Aug. 11.
As soon as Sidarth’s video made the news, Allen’s campaign staffers went into damage control mode. “Macaca” doesn’t mean anything negative, they said. He made up the word. He certainly didn’t mean to say the word that in any language means monkey or dark-skinned North African or crap or clown.
Whatever it means, he didn’t mean anything by it.
He meant “mohawk,” they said, because Sidarth wears his hair in that style. But Sidarth doesn’t wear his hair in the style called “mohawk.”
You just have to wonder if the Allen camp thought Sidarth was American Indian, rather than Indian-American, or if they thought one brown face with dark hair was the same as any other one.
Reporters couldn’t decide what to call Allen’s slur. Was it a gaffe, a mistake? Did he misspeak?
Before we go back to what it was, let’s review what it was not.
Allen knew he was being videotaped and by whom, so it wasn’t a gaffe that happened to be captured on video.
He knew the videographer was from the rival campaign, so it wasn’t a political misstep.
Sidarth had been shooting for several days, had introduced himself to the Allen staffers and was not invisible. Allen and his staffers had discussed Sidarth and had given him the nickname “Mohawk.”
What Allen did was calculated. He played to what he thought was the level of his audience. He belittled the “other” in his best schoolyard bully style, the one he uses to cut off debate about the racist name of his beloved football club.
When Allen was exposed with no place to hide, he started apologizing. I didn’t know what it meant; I didn’t mean it; I’m not mean, he said to anyone who would listen. Luckily for him, the media moved on to cover the child-porn freak show and the anniversaries of Katrina and Sept. 11, 2001.
This leaves Allen with two months to try to convince voters to return him to the Senate, where he can take a more senior position on the Foreign Relations Committee and welcome more people to his “real world.”
No self-respecting Indian-American, American Indian or person of conscience in Virginia should vote to send Allen back to the Senate. A thwarted re-election would be the best way to discourage Allen’s political march toward the White House. I hope that Virginians go to the polls with both goals in mind.
<i>Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.