“Arab” vs. “Decent”: Arab-Americans Reacting to McCain’s Words in Minnesota

There are at least 3.5 million Americans of Arab descent. Those who are following the presidential race cannot be happy with the latest news from the McCain campaign.

In a scene that will be replayed on YouTube and cable news through the weekend, Gayle Quinnell, an elderly female Republican supporter at a rally in Lakeville, Minnesota, tells John McCain that Barack Obama is “an Arab” when questioning the Democrat’s fitness to lead the country.

McCain, as you can see in the video, snatches the microphone from her hand and counters: “No ma’am, no ma’am, he’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign is all about. He’s not. Thank you.”

The video also includes a post-rally interview with Quinnell. According to The Uptake.org, the reporters present were Noah Kunin, The UpTake’s senior political correspondent, Adam Aigner of NBC News and Dana Bash of CNN. [The interview was taped with a cellphone camera in a noisy place, but a full transcript is available at The Uptake link above.]

Quinnell, who’s 75 years old, said she obtained information on Obama from the Shakopee, Minn., local library and from another Republican volunteer at a McCain campaign office. She added she’s sent out 400 copies of a letter containing that information to local people so they can decide “if they would want Obama.”

When asked why she thinks Obama is Arab, Quinnell answers “because his dad is.” When CNN’s Dana Bash interjects that Barack Obama’s father was in fact a Muslim, Quinnell seems a bit confused about the terms. She finally says, “Yeah, but he’s still got Muslim in him. So that’s still part of him. I got all the stuff from the library and I could send you all kinds of stuff on him.”

Some Arab-Americans reacted swiftly, although not many media outlets seem to have picked up their side of the story yet.

Ray Hanania, a Chicago journalist and the publisher of the National Arab American Times newspaper, published a column Saturday morning under the headline, “Racism Lingers in Presidential Election.”

McCain added the line that really hurt more than the woman’s outburst of racist hatred, when he probably unintentionally wanted to remind people that Obama is not an Arab, but he is a “decent family man.” What happened at this event in Philadelphia (sic) this week was not an effort to temper racism, but rather a depiction of the two kinds of racism that exist in America today that is coming out in the presidential election campaign and is directed at Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, people who “look” like they are Middle Eastern, and anyone who doesn’t fit into the profile of who is an “accepted” minority.

The woman displayed an outward burst of raw hatred by calling Obama an “Arab.” She did not say it because she was making a comment pertinent to any discussion but to assert the “flaw of being Arab.”

McCain’s response was not an outright example of racism, but was a form of subtle racism. What McCain did was come to Obama’s defense viewing the woman’s comment as slander and then responding to the slander.

Hanania made it clear he doesn’t think McCain said what he said in the way he said it on purpose. But, he wrote, McCain “doesn’t believe that being called an ‘Arab’ in the context of an attack is wrong.”

Bloggers reacted with indignation. “Arab or family man. But not both,” said one. “Arab is the ‘New’ Nigger,” wrote another.

Juan Cole, a professor of History at the University of Michigan and a Middle East expert, wrote:

McCain should have said, “there would be nothing wrong with being an Arab, but Obama is not.” The way he put it strongly implied that he had a low opinion of Arabs.

The Arab-American vote can be important in five battleground states -Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia-, according to the Arab American Institute.

Americans of Arab descent are leaning towards Obama, who enjoys a 54 to 33 percent advantage over McCain, according to a national poll conducted by Zogby International for the institute -which is run by James J. Zogby.

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.