COMMENTARY: Racism and Political Campaigns

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(The following statement was issued July 19 by Priscilla Ouchida, JACL national executive director, and Bill Yoshino, JACL Midwest regional director.)

A congressional race in New York reminds us we shouldn’t become complacent about racism. Nate Shinagawa, the Democratic nominee in New York’s 23rd Congressional District was the recent target of a racist attack by WYSL radio hosts Bill Nojay and Bob Savage.

Nate Shinagawa

During the broadcast, Nojay told listeners they should be impressed that he could pronounce Shinagawa’s name, whereupon a guest said that Shinagawa would lose because of his name. That was “not a nice thing to say,” responded Nojay. Savage weighed in using a mock foreign accent, saying, “xenophobic, xenophobic.”

As Nojay began explaining why he thought Shinagawa would lose the election, including saying Shinagawa was from the “People’s Republic,” “Sukiyaki,” a song popularized during the 1960s, was played in the background.

There is no doubt that great strides have been made in combating anti-Asian sentiment (to the point) where many Asian Americans will tell you they don’t experience racism in their daily lives. Yet, we must recognize this form of racism continues to manifest itself in cycles. The racism displayed during the WYSL broadcast can be anticipated during times of crisis when Asian nations are seen as the culprits in relations with America.

Unfortunately, racism can also be anticipated during political campaigns when it is used as a tool to create fear among a pliable segment of the electorate. We know this because racism is caused by ignorance, by the fear of people who appear to be different, by the need for certain groups to reaffirm their dominance over another, by the lack of diversity in certain areas, and by the fear of sharing power.

Fortunately, a great deal of outrage was directed at WYSL as a result of this incident. Organizations called on political campaigns to stick to the issues rather than resorting to racist tactics. Others said that Shinagawa’s opponent should disclaim the racist tactic used by WYSL. The JACL shares these approaches.

The denials of racism were fast and furious from WYSL Radio. The station, through its president and CEO, Bob Savage, attributed the outraged reaction as a tactic of the political left and quickly sought safe harbor in the First Amendment.

As an organization that has combated racism for over 80 years, the JACL believes it is important to label racism when we see it. Our tools for combating racism are education and the reliance on good people to stand up and reject it. None of us can afford to be bystanders when haters seek to spread fear and oppression.

As we enter the final months of political campaigns throughout the nation where the partisan divides are deep and where certain issues are ripe for racist demagoguery, it is important to be vigilant in responding whenever and wherever these acts occur. It is incumbent on all of us to do so.

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