Hoekstra’s Yellow Hands: A Brief History of anti-Chinese Racist Campaign Ads

You have probably seen Rep. Pete Hoekstra’s horrifically racist Super Bowl ad, featuring an Asian woman speaking broken English while riding through her rice paddy with a conical hat:

I’m a native-born Chinese American. Odious scumbags like Rep. Pete Hoekstra and his daft team make my blood boil hotter than lava.

I’m not going to spend too much time explaining the blatant in-your-face racism of this ad, it’s self-evident. This ad is the most visible and obvious example of a dangerous trend that Republicans and even some Democrats have embraced in recent cycles: casting Chinese people and culture as the Other to be feared.

Remember Jesse Helms’ infamous Black Hands ad? It was enough to use the simple imagery of a pair of white hands to intone darkly that African-Americans were taking the jobs of Whites. With China-bashing, they don’t even have to try for such subtlety.

This ad is a symptom of two threads of thought weaving themselves into a crazy quilt of racist imagery:

1) Chinese stereotypes, culture, and language as a shortcut for the Chinese economy and government -With only 30 seconds in an ad, it’s much easier to preach fear of Chinese faces and culture than the Communist government, or economic forces. Hence the conical hats, rice paddies, gongs, and dragon dances.

2) Chinese faces as the Other, separate and apart from “American” faces – These ads always show happy Chinese faces taking jobs away from Americans, exploiting hidden a hidden sentiment that Chinese-Americans and other immigrant groups are simply not accepted as standard. That’s why Senator George Allen tried to point out a native-born “macaca” as a foreigner in 2006: it’s easy to keep castigating groups into permanent outsider status.

There are ways to discuss trade and debt with regards to China without dipping into the vast and unending pool of racist imagery, a test that many recent campaigns have failed. Instead, politicians like Pete Hoekstra stoke fear of Chinese people and culture itself. I’ll explain each point below the fold.

I’m heartened by the Black ministers who have joined in condemning this ad, because we don’t have to explain to our fellow minority groups that it all comes from the same strategy: instill fear in the voter of Others taking their jobs and livelihoods.

It is a material fact that many manufacturing jobs have left America for cheaper pastures like China. The causes for this are complex, and involve the mechanics of capitalism seeking cheap labor and trade policy.

It is not because Chinese people look different than white people, speak broken English, and do silly dragon dances. This bullshit has to stop.

1) Chinese stereotypes, culture, and language as a shortcut for the Chinese economy and government. It shouldn’t be hard to run against the Chinese Communist government. From its well-documented human rights abuses, to the quashing of pro-democracy movements, up through widespread corruption and class inequality, the modern Chinese government provides a rich trove of attacks. It is, however, much easier to visually attack the Chinese people.

The Chinese language itself becomes a fear intensifier, like in this 2010 spot from Citizens Against Government Waste. Look at all those Chinese people laughing at our misfortune!

Take now-Congressman Mark Amodei’s ad, where in heavily accented English a fake Chinese news reader reports on Chinese troops marching on the Capitol. It says hardly anything of susbtance, instead relying on a helter-skelter spray of Chinese characters and sounds to scare voters with their foreign-ness.

It’s about as complex as jumping out from under the bed and screaming “BOOGA BOOGA CHING CHONG”. Amodei’s ad plays almost like aversion therapy to a Chinese takeover, stitching together words and sounds to stoke primal fear instead of intellectual thought.

2) Chinese faces as the Other, separate and apart from “American” faces
Hoekstra and company get away with this because even though Chinese-Americans have inhabited our fair nation for well over a century, Asians have never shaken off the “foreigner” image. The most offensive part of this ad is how Republicans think it’s entirely believable that a girl who speaks perfectly unaccented English could speak with broken grammar. Hoekstra’s defense was that the the parents of the actress are “100% Chinese!” It’s believable because…well, look, she looks foreign!

While most of the overt racism comes from Republicans, my fellow Democrats are guilty of this also. Before anyone tries to say that simply bashing Chinese culture in campaign ads doesn’t harm Chinese-Americans, I’ll remind you that former Rep. Zack Space ran an ad in 2010 using footage of a Chinese New Year celebration in San Francisco to stand in for Chinese people celebrating the theft of Ohio jobs:

It is deliberately scripted so that crowds of happy, smiling yellow faces are celebrating taking jobs away from a (white) Ohio worker! Look at all those yellow people basking in their joy. That’s called racism, implying that the faces and traditions of those pesky yellow people are succeeding at the expense of good white people.

Notice how this contrasts with the approach that Indiana Rep. Joe Donnelly took in his ad on China:

While like most campaign ads, it’s short on actual policy, it expresses the point that Donnelly wants to protect American jobs without resorting to contrasting happy yellow people with sad white people. It avoids gongs and Oriental-sounding music, it avoids Communist troops marching in lockstep. That’s called politics, which is not racist.

There’s no counterbalance to this trope. Asians are rarely, if ever portrayed in campaign ads as “Americans”. In most Congressional districts there aren’t enough Asians to bother including one. Instead, when jobs are being shipped overseas, Chinese faces are always shown to be the winners, and white Americans the losers. Asians are always and forever the “other” to be feared and loathed in this situation.

It’s not just in campaign ads. It comes from children on the school bus asking Asian kids if they were born in America, but not white kids. It comes from playground knuckleheads who want the class Chinese kid to speak Chinese because it sounds funny, and laugh because their last names are so short and funny. Remember the Texas lawmaker that suggested Asians adopt easier names to simplify voter registration?

It comes from people asking “but where are you really from?” when they won’t take “Virginia” for an answer. It comes from the man who asked me at Shad Planking a few years ago what I thought of American culture. These atomized interaction ranging from overt racism to innocent misunderstandings don’t happen in a vacuum separate and distinct from our political discourse, and racist tools like Rep. Hoekstra don’t make life any easier.

Pete Hoekstra and his racist allies deserve no sympathy for the flogging they so richly deserve, but this problem won’t solve itself. It won’t solve itself until people look at Asian faces and believe that they could be born Americans by default. It won’t solve itself until Asian faces become “normal American,” instead of the Other to fear.

Hoekstra will learn not to be so overt, but we must remain vigilant to fight what comes next.

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