For months, America’s political discourse has been buoyed by a debate about the racial motivations of various statements and events: Arizona Governor Jan Brewer wagging her finger in the face of the first Black president. Newt Gingrich and his contempt for Barack Obama, the “food stamp President.” Mitt Romney’s entitlement vs. opportunity society paradigm. Each happening serves as a Rorschach test of racial perception. Some see no racial motivation, while others view the events as so transparently charged that any claims to the contrary appear either naive or malevolent.
Michigan Republican Pete Hoekstra’s Super Bowl ad aimed at Senator Debbie Stabenow (R-MI) may finally give us an example of code that is so clear virtually everyone can break it. The ad in question features an Asian woman bicycling along a rice paddy. “Your economy get very weak,” the actress says in broken English. “Ours get very good. We take your jobs! Thank you, Debbie Spenditnow!”
The provocative spot was meant to highlight the effect of government spending and borrowing on the rise of the Chinese economy. Instead, it has united Democrats, Republicans and advocates – all of whom feel the ad plays on racial stereotypes.
On Sunday, Republican political consultant Mike Murphy chastised the spot tweeting: “Pete Hoekstra Superbowl TV ad in MI Senate race really, really dumb. I mean really.” In a statement, the Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote’s Michigan chapter said, “The use of these stereotypes is counter to the progress our country has made over past decades.” And unlike the Republican presidential hopefuls who have (with the exception of Gingrich calling Romney “anti-immigrant”) largely dismissed each other’s verbal flourishes, Hoekstra’s primary opponent is swinging back. Clark Durant, Hoekstra’s challenger, put out his own ad calling Hoekstra’s spot “demeaning.”
Hoekstra, under pressure, is reportedly pulling the ad. That after days of defiance on his part.
Given the abundance of events and statements possibly laced with racial anxiety, why were the undertones of this ad perceived as overtones? Could it be that purely verbal nods don’t have the same effect as visual representations? Would Gingrich’s assault on welfare be received differently if it was matched by a visual that left no room for interpretation on the race of those “queens?” Would Romney’s hard-line on immigration be more widely held as racially motivated if his voice-over featured b-roll of Latino men in mugshots, a la Sharron Angle’s 2010 ad? And if so, why did the Brewer/Obama tarmac confrontation not elicit the same condemnation? Did it need accompanying sound?
Take a look and judge for yourself. What about this ad makes it clear that it crosses the line while other articulations leave room for debate?