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2006-08-22

"Humiliated and Appalled," Virginia Student Calls for Apology From Sen. Allen for 'Macaca' Slur

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Republican Senator George Allen of Virginia ignited controversy last week when he singled out a student volunteer for his opponent’s campaign at a rally and referred to him as a "macaca." The man Allen was referring to was SR Sidarth, a Fairfax County native of Indian descent. The term "macaca" refers to a genus of monkey and is used as an ethnic slur. Sidarth joins us from Virginia to discuss the incident. [includes rush transcript]

All eyes are on Virginia’s Senate race that pits Republican incumbent George Allen against Democratic challenger Jim Webb. The race was catapulted into the spotlight last week after controversial remarks made by Senator Allen at a campaign rally before a mostly white audience at Breaks Interstate Park in Southwest Virginia. During his speech, Allen singled out a volunteer for his opponent’s campaign who was taping the event.

  • Sen. George Allen (R–VA), speaking at a campaign rally, August 11, 2006.

The man Senator George Allen was referring to is SR Sidarth, a 20 year-old volunteer for Jim Webb’s campaign. He was born in Fairfax County, Virginia and is of Indian descent.

The term "macaca" refers to a genus of monkey and is used as an ethnic slur in some cultures. Webb’s campaign soon posted the clip on YouTube.com, producing a string of front-page stories. Allen said afterwards that he had meant no insult, that he was sorry if he hurt anyone’s feelings and that he did not know what "macaca" meant. Allen’s aides then said it was a play on the word "mohawk" for Sidarth’s partly shaved head. Webb’s campaign was skeptical of the explanations with his communications director saying "I think it’s reaching, at best."

Regardless, many political analysts say the controversy has affected the Virginia race with Allen dropping in the polls. The incident has also brought what some call Allen’s history of racial and ethnic insensitivity into the fold. We will discuss that in a minute but first, the man at the center of the controversy joins us. SR Sidarth is a senior at the University of Virginia and a volunteer for the James Webb Campaign.

  • SR Sidarth, a senior at the University of Virginia and a volunteer for Jim Webb’s campaign.
  • Mark Potok, director of the intelligence project for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: All eyes are on Virginia’s Senate race that pits Republican incumbent George Allen against Democratic challenger Jim Webb. The race was catapulted into the spotlight last week, after controversial remarks made by Senator Allen at a campaign rally before a mostly white audience at Breaks Interstate Park in Far Southwest Virginia. During his speech, Allen singled out a volunteer for his opponent’s campaign, who was taping the event.

SEN. GEORGE ALLEN: My friends, we’re going to run this campaign on positive, constructive ideas. And it’s important that we motivate and inspire people for something. This fellow here, over here, with the yellow shirt, Macaca or whatever his name is, he is with my opponent. He’s following us around everywhere. And it’s just great. We’re going to places all over Virginia. And he’s having it on film, and it’s great to have you here. And you show it to your opponent, because he’s never been there and probably will never come. So it’s good [inaudible] or his opponent actually right now is with a bunch of Hollywood movie moguls. We care about fact, not fiction. So, welcome. Let’s give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.

AMY GOODMAN: The man Senator George Allen was referring to is SR Sidarth. He’s 20 years old, a volunteer for Jim Webb’s campaign. He was born in Fairfax County, Virginia, and is of Indian descent. The term "macaca" refers to a genus of monkey and is used as an ethnic slur in some cultures.

Webb’s campaign soon posted the embarrassing clip on youtube.com, producing a string of front-page stories. Allen said afterwards he had meant no insult, that he was sorry if he hurt anyone’s feelings, that he didn’t know what "macaca" meant. Allen’s aides then said it was a play on the word "mohawk" for Sidarth’s partly shaved head. Webb’s campaign was skeptical of the explanations, with his communications director saying, "I think it’s reaching, at best."

Regardless, many political analysts say the controversy has affected the Virginia race, with Allen dropping in the polls. The incident has also brought what some call Allen’s history of racial and ethnic insensitivity into the fold. We will discuss that in a minute, but first, the man at the center of the controversy joins us, SR Sidarth, a senior at the University of Virginia, a volunteer for the James Webb Campaign. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

SR SIDARTH: Thanks, Amy. How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Explain what happened.

SR SIDARTH: Well, I was working for Mr. Webb’s campaign, and I had been following Senator Allen for all of the previous week, which is two weeks ago now. And this sort of came up out of the blue on Friday evening. I had been following him around since Monday, and nothing of this sort had happened at any point. He had not talked to me directly during any of these stump speeches that he was giving. And then, just Friday evening, this incident occurred, which you just played back.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you had introduced yourself to him.

SR SIDARTH: That’s correct, on Monday, when I had started out.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you mean? You went up to Senator Allen, and you said who you were?

SR SIDARTH: Yeah. He was just greeting people at the second stop he made on the tour, and he saw me. He shook my hand, asked what my name was. I told him I was Sidarth. And he asked what company I was with, because at that point he thought I might be with some business. And I told him, "I’m following you around." So by that point he had some idea that I was the tracker from Mr. Webb’s campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: What were your thoughts as he made the comments? Were you filming as he was speaking?

SR SIDARTH: Correct. And it was pretty early in the speech, so, as you might see from the video, I was sort of just focusing the camera appropriately. And on the whole, I was pretty humiliated by what he had said and somewhat appalled that someone like a senator of the United States would say that.

AMY GOODMAN: What about his explanations that he had made up the word?

SR SIDARTH: Well, if you look at some of the press releases the Allen campaign has been releasing, the first time they said the staffers were the ones who made up the nickname. Then, in his, quote/unquote, "apology," because he hasn’t made one personally to me — and I would think if he singled me out in a crowd, he would be — you know, it would be his obligation to make an apology to me in person, whether on the phone or otherwise. He said in that statement that it was he, who had made the nickname up. So, honestly, I’m not sure what to believe.

AMY GOODMAN: There have been a lot of postings about this, articles and blogs, one of them I’m looking at, which says, "George Allen stepped in macaca. Pop quiz: which one of these two people was born and raised in Virginia?" And there’s a photograph of George Allen and of you. And it says, "That’s right. It’s not our elected official, who was born in Whittier, California. It’s Sidarth, who Allen referred to as 'Macaca or whatever his name is.' The senator then went on to say, 'Welcome to America.' Perhaps realizing that he had crossed a line, Allen added, 'and the real world of Virginia.' Kind of funny, since Sidarth has apparently lived nowhere else," that blog said. Your response?

SR SIDARTH: I mean, that’s right. I think it’s ironic that he said that. Aside from just being hurtful, as this sort of reference that he was making to immigrants in general, when in fact I have lived in Fairfax County my entire life.

AMY GOODMAN: SR Sidarth, we’re also joined by Mark Potok, director of the intelligence project for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Can you talk about Senator Allen’s record, Mark Potok?

MARK POTOK: Well, sure. I mean, essentially it’s a 25-year record of flirting with these sort of Confederate ideas — really, not "sort of." I mean, one of the highlights, at least in my mind, is when he was running for governor in '93, or actually shortly after he was elected, and designated a Confederate History Month in Virginia. And the statement, I think, was quite amazing, the actual words that went with the declaration, in which he described the Civil War as, quote, "a struggle for independence and sovereign rights." You know, I think that kind of captures the whole thing. I mean, the man was governor of a state that includes Black people, although he doesn't seem to understand that. You know, it’s just a remarkable kind of characterization of what the Civil War was about. You know, it’s very much what we see coming out of the neo-Confederate hate groups that we cover as part of our work.

There’s a long history that involves things like, you know, opposing redistricting that would have made it possible for a Black representative to be elected from Virginia for the first time since Reconstruction, joining and then un-joining, as it were, a club with a long racially exclusive history that many other governors had refused to join.

And it goes on from there. I mean, he’s very associated with the Confederate battle flag. I mean, as long ago as high school, he was wearing a pin in his lapel with this flag, and, you know, as has been widely reported, also had a flag at a certain cabin he had in Virginia, which he describes as part of a collection of flags. You know, I just find the explanations — as you look at all this over time, each one of his kind of quasi-apologies has been quite ridiculous. You know, as SR Sidarth just pointed out, I mean, this series of shifting explanations from his staff and from himself, of this latest remark, are incredible. I mean, I think on the face of it, it’s virtually impossible to believe that suddenly he made up a nickname or somehow this popped into his head. As Salon pointed out, it was as if he were saying that he was speaking in tongues; this word had come to him somehow through the ether, and he was directing it at someone he perceived as his enemy.

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday?

MARK POTOK: Well, he was, of course, one of many Southern politicians who opposed Martin Luther King’s birthday. I think one of the more remarkable things he said at the time was that he didn’t want the holiday to be instituted, because Martin Luther King was not a Virginian. You know, obviously I think it hardly bears repeating that most other states in the Union have not felt that way at all. You know, the South, as well as the North, is filled with monument and streets named after Martin Luther King, and so on. I mean, you do not hear that argument, even in a place like Alabama.

The whole thing, at least to me, is reminiscent of the Trent Lott sort of series of fiascos of a few years ago. You know, I remember when Lott was exposed, actually by us, for having very close connections to the Council of Conservative Citizens, which is a white supremacist group, a descendent of the old White Citizens’ Councils. And his theories of shifting explanations — he had no idea who they were; well, maybe he did — you know, and it went on and on and on, until his relatives were quoted saying actually he was a longtime member. And you know, in Lott’s case, that didn’t really come back to roost until he made his comments at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, saying the Dixiecrats were right, and so on, and America would have been such a better place. That whole story just reminds me of this episode. I think we’re seeing the real George Allen. I think that this is not some freak moment. It’s not a psychotic break. This is what the man really is.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to SR Sidarth for final comment. The Albany Times Union has a column that says that it turns out the word "macaca" is a racist slur from Northern Africa, used by those who would engage in that kind of racism, for example, French Tunisians. Allen’s mother, of French Tunisian descent, in no ways suggesting she feels this way, but salon.com also says in North Africa the word "macaca," often spelled "macaco" or "macaque," is far more than a string of random syllables. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word dates back to the mid-1600s as a Flemish approximation of the Bantu word for monkey in the Congo and southern Gabon. Your final comment? And what is your demand right now? What are you asking of Senator Allen?

SR SIDARTH: I think he should make a personal apology to me. That would be the decent thing for him to do. And I guess the point of this entire lesson, as Mr. Potok said, was just to show voters who the real George Allen is, and that this wasn’t one-time accident, that he has some history of doing this, and that people should be informed about that come November.

AMY GOODMAN: And are you going to continue to follow Senator Allen with your video camera, recording his events?

SR SIDARTH: I’m actually back at school in Charlottesville, so for the moment, no. But I do plan to continue to work for Mr. Webb’s campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: SR Sidarth, I want to thank you for being with us at the University of Virginia studios. And Mark Potok, thank you for joining us, director of intelligence project for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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