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LANSING, Mich.- A U.S. Senate candidate is being called upon to apologize for his Super Bowl ad featuring a young Asian woman speaking broken English to describe the impact of his rival’s economic policies.
Michigan Republican Pete Hoekstra began taking criticism after his ad targeting Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow ran statewide Sunday during the Super Bowl.
The ad opens with the sound of a gong and shows the woman riding a bike on a narrow path lined by rice paddies.
The woman smiles into the camera and says, “Thank you, Michigan Senator Debbie Spend-It-Now. Debbie spends so much American money. You borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you, Debbie Spend-It-Now.”
The scene shifts to Hoekstra telling viewers, “I think this race is between Debbie Spend-It-Now and Pete Spend-It-Not.”
Some critics said the ad was racially insensitive, while national Republican consultant Mike Murphy tweeted that it was “really, really dumb.” Foreign Policy magazine managing editor Blake Hounshell called the ad “despicable.”
Rep. Judy Chu (D-El Monte), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), accused Hoekstra of fueling anti-Asian sentiment.
“Thirty years ago, a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin was brutally murdered on the streets of Detroit by angry workers who blamed Japan for the plight of the U.S. auto industry,” said Chu. “Three decades later, Pete Hoekstra is stoking the flames of these same anti-Asian sentiments as he runs for the U.S. Senate in the very same state.
“I am appalled at the Hoekstra campaign’s offensive and insensitive Super Bowl ad that relies heavily on negative Asian stereotypes. Politics of fear and division will never bring the American people together around the solutions they so desperately need, and I am calling on former Rep. Hoekstra to take down this atrocious ad and issue an apology immediately.”
The Rev. Charles Williams II of Detroit’s King Solomon Baptist church, where Malcolm X spoke in the 1960s, joined several other Detroit pastors calling for Hoekstra to pull the ad.
“The Asian woman speaking in this video would be no different than him having a black person speaking in slave dialect,” Williams said in a statement Monday.
Hoekstra defended the ad, calling it a “home run” during an interview Monday with Detroit radio WJR-AM.
“Clearly China is one of many countries benefiting from our irresponsible spending. To highlight that is absolutely appropriate,” Hoekstra said. The ad doesn’t mention China directly.
A barrage of criticism hit Hoekstra’s Facebook page early Sunday evening, but most of the negative comments were deleted by Monday morning.
On Facebook, Hoekstra said those “trying to make this an issue of race demonstrates their total ignorance of job creation policies.”
The nonpartisan Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote’s Michigan chapter said it was “deeply disappointed” by the ad.
“It is very disturbing that Mr. Hoekstra’s campaign chose to use harmful negative stereotypes that intrinsically encourage anti-Asian sentiment,” the group said in a statement.
Stabenow, the two-term senator Hoekstra hopes to challenge, has not responded directly to the ad.
JACL, OCA, Politicians Respond
“The Hoekstra campaign defends the ad as using satire to make a statement about China’s education system,” the Japanese American Citizens League said in a statement Tuesday. “If they believe this ad is a satire about education, the Hoekstra campaign needs to be educated about the basics of this difficult literary form. In truth, their explanation is a shallow attempt to rationalize a racial attack in an effort to instill fear.
“Anti-Asian fear mongering as a political tactic has a long and sordid history. From the hysteria surrounding the ‘yellow peril’ in the late 19th century to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, depicting Asians as the enemy can result in dangerous and sometimes fatal consequences for Americans of Asian ancestry. Hoekstra’s own state of Michigan was the scene to one of the most tragic anti-Asian incidents in recent times: the murder of Vincent Chin.
“The JACL is dismayed that Hoekstra would resort to tired racist tropes and xenophobia to score political points.”
The Organization of Chinese Americans urged Hoekstra to apologize for the ad and to discontinue “inflammatory messaging.”
“Anti-Asian sentiments within often unfounded economic context have in the past gravely influenced antagonistic sentiments resulting in violent and fatal attack on such individuals as Vincent Chin in the home state of Mr. Hoekstra in the 1980s, and the massacre of Chinese immigrants in California during the 1800s, to name a few …” OCA said in a statement.
“OCA, as a national civil rights organization with over 80 chapters and affiliates, urges all candidates and political organizations when addressing their audience to be respectful of the multi-ethnic fabric of America. To this end, APAs in their own right are and continue to be strong social, economic, and political contributors and leaders of all ideological persuasion and affiliations.
“The debate should be issue-focused without resorting to unfair and inaccurate comparisons. Demonizing a specific class of people using fear tactics based on broad political and economic generalizations or predictions should not be tolerated by the community at large.”
Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) told the Washington Post, “America should expect much more from a candidate for a high federal position. His racist thoughts are not welcome in the United States Senate.”
Assemblymember Mariko Yamada (D-Davis) said in a Facebook post, “Pete Hoekstra’s Senate ad is not only patently offensive but all the more dangerous because it is running — apparently for two more weeks — in the state of Michigan.
“In 1982, Vincent Chin was murdered by two unemployed Detroit auto workers who mistook him for being Japanese. While beating him to death with baseball bats, they blamed the Japanese auto industry for their being out of work.
“So, this ad is irresponsible especially in these difficult economic times. To the sister who took the job to speak poorly disguised ‘Chinglish,’ maybe you needed the work. But you are being used as a pawn in an ugly and divisive effort. If you believe what the ad says, just say it in plain English.”