Though I live in Pennsylvania (and voted for Bob Casey & Joe Sestak), the big Senatorial race for me was really in Virginia. As most readers know, during the summer, George Allen called S.R. Sidarth, a young worker in his opponent's campaign, "macaca." He didn't seem concerned that the same person happened to be carrying a video camera, and probably didn't imagine that the event being filmed would immediately be seen by millions on news shows, talk shows, and of course, on video sharing sites like Youtube (go ahead, watch the video again, you know you want to). It's possible that this will go down as the first "Youtube" election, just as 2004 was the first "blogged" election -- though notably, the blogosphere (dominated by liberal blogs) didn't seem to make a difference in the outcome of 2004, and I'm sure it's an open question as to whether Youtube had any real impact in the tight Senate races in places like Virginia and Montana.
"Macaca" was one of those strange insults you don't know what to do with at first. As with many ethnic slurs, it was unclear at first that it even was a slur (remember rat-eater?), since it isn't a word commonly used to describe (or insult) people from the Indian subcontinent. That isn't really new; ethnic slurs thrive on ignorance, and often misdescribe the people they are aimed at.
As people looked up various possible definitions of the word macaca, they discovered that none of them are complimentary. Like most South Asians in the U.S. (see Abhi's post at Sepia Mutiny, and the reactions to it), I immediately registered "macaca" as an insult, though I wasn't surprised that many others didn't see it that way. Eventually the mainstream consensus seemed to be that it was in fact an ethnic insult, and the next question for most South Asians was, "will this matter to anyone?" Will anyone else be as offended by this as we are? More is at stake in that question than first appears. Behind it is a deep anxiety about acceptance and integration, about being equally valued and respected in American society. Everyone is on board (usually) if a public figure makes a remark that could be construed as hostile to other, more settled minority groups -- the hostile response to Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade this summer was essentially unequivocal. And Trent Lott's political career was derailed by a comment relating to Jim Crow. But are Virginians, and Americans in general, going to care about "macaca," and share a sense of grievance with a newer, smaller, and less visible minority community? As the macaca story gathered steam, there was almost a sigh of relief as the answer appeared to be "yes." And now, if Jim Webb's slim lead holds following a probable recount in the coming days, it will be hard not to see it as a decisive factor in the election.
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But did "macaca" really make a difference? One CNN pundit suggested, based on exit polls, that "macaca" may well not have been finally as important to voters as issues such as the war in Iraq -- 56% of voters said they did not think George Allen was a racist. But it's hard to argue with the huge swing in the polls that followed the initial comment -- even if in the end, exit poll results suggest that other issues may have been more prevalent in voters' minds. In a race as close as this, it did make a difference.
There was a bit of gallows humor following the "macaca" gaffe that the use of racial slurs might actually help George Allen, but that turned out to be totally false: Virginia is changing. There are now a decent number of South Asians in Virginia -- 77,000 -- and a significant subset of them are voting American citizens. Assuming that the vast majority were voting for Webb, there are certainly enough desis there to have affected the final tally of the election in Webb's favor (if the current 3000 vote margin holds after a recount). Other stats: according to the U.S. census in 2000, 4.3 percent of Virginia's population is Asian. And close to 600,000 Virginia residents (8.5 percent, with a total state population of 7 million) are foreign born, well above the national average. Virginia is looking less like the "southern firewall," and more like a mid-Atlantic state like Pennsylvania or Maryland. Urban counties are very blue, suburban counties will be purple (currently leaning blue), and the sparsely populated rural counties will be very red.