In reporting Allen's use of derogatory North African word "macaca," most major media outlets ignored Allen's familial ties to region


In reporting on Sen. George Allen's use of the racially derogatory word "macaca" to refer to one of his opponent's campaign volunteers and his claim not to know what the term means or why he used it, the majority of media outlets left out a fact that might shed light on the claim's veracity -- Allen's mother was born and raised in Tunisia, a former French colony in North Africa, as Allen has repeatedly noted in the past.

In reporting on Sen. George F. Allen's (R-VA) reference to one of his opponent's campaign volunteers as "Macaca," most major media outlets noted that the word is a slur that apparently originated in North Africa. However, in reporting Allen's claim not to know what the term means or why he used it, the majority of those media outlets -- including The Washington Post, ABC, CNN, The New York Times, the Associated Press, and MSNBC -- left out a fact that might shed light on the claim's veracity: Allen's mother was born and raised in Tunisia, a former French colony in North Africa, as Allen himself has repeatedly noted in the past.

On August 11, Allen was caught on tape referring to S.R. Sidarth, a volunteer with Allen's Democratic Senate challenger Jim Webb, as "Macaca" and "[w]elcome[d]" Sidarth "to America and the real world of Virginia." Sidarth is of Indian descent, but he was reportedly born and raised in Virginia. As The Washington Post reported on August 15, "In some European cultures, macaca is also considered a racial slur against African immigrants, according to several Web sites that track ethnic slurs." Responding to questions raised over Allen's use of the term "macaca," Dick Wadhams, Allen's campaign manager, "dismissed the issue with an expletive and insisted the senator has 'nothing to apologize for,' " as the August 15 Post article reported. As an August 16 Post article further noted, Allen subsequently apologized for his use of the term, claiming his remarks "have been greatly misunderstood by members of the media." The August 15 Post article had previously reported that Allen did not know what "macaca" means, and that his use of the term was really intended as a play on the word " 'mohawk,' a term that his campaign staff had nicknamed Sidarth because of his haircut." The article had added, "Sidarth said his hairstyle is a mullet -- tight on top, long in the back."

But as Washington correspondent Michael Scherer detailed in an August 16 Salon article, in addition to the fact that the term "macaca" is "racist shorthand for blacks" with North African origins, Allen's mother was born and raised in Tunisia:

Though he doesn't like to use it, the senator's full name is George F. Allen. He gets the middle initial from his grandfather, Felix Lumbrosso, a French-Italian who was incarcerated by the Nazis during World War II. Felix raised Allen's mother, Etty, in Tunisia, a French protectorate [sic] in North Africa. As a child, Allen's grandparents lived near the family home, and Etty spoke five languages around the house. Allen makes no secret of his heritage on the campaign trail. "I have my grandfather's bloodlines," he said at a recent swing through a suburb of Richmond. "My grandfather is French-Italian. I have about one-sixteenth Spanish in me."

In North Africa, the word "macaca," often spelled "macaco" or "macaque," is far more than a string of random syllables. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word dates back to the mid-1600s, as a Flemish approximation of the Bantu word for monkey in the Congo and southern Gabon. The word migrated north, taking on all the racist connotations that followed African colonization. By the early 1800s, Jacko Maccacco, a famous fighting monkey, could be found on display in Westminster Pit, a notorious London arena for dog fights. The word had entered the common vernacular, and it eventually became a racist shorthand for blacks.

Additionally, a September 24, 2000, Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Virginia) profile of Allen reported: "[I]t was Etty Allen who shaped her son" (emphasis added):

He started talking at 10 months, and Etty Allen started quizzing him. She had brought a bunch of records from: French, Italian, Arabic and Spanish.

"Which language is that?" she'd say.

"The pretty one," he'd answer, or "the dark one."

She and her husband continued quizzing their children -- two sons and then a daughter followed George -- in the family station wagon on vacations. Dad would do the math, Mom the languages.

In his Salon article, Scherer also reported that Allen's sister attested to the numerous languages spoken in the Allen household, but said she and her mother were unfamiliar with the word "macaca":

In an interview Tuesday, George Allen's youngest sister, Jennifer Richard, told Salon that both her mother and grandparents spoke multiple languages around the house when they were kids. "My mom speaks French to me. She spoke Arabic," Richard said. But she said she knew nothing about the word "macaca." Later in the day, she asked her mother, who she said also did not recognize the word.

Allen has frequently touted his mother's French-Tunisian links, most recently on June 19. While discussing his Senatorial race on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Allen mentioned his mother's Tunisian ties to guest host and MSNBC chief Washington correspondent Norah O'Donnell:

O'DONNELL: I read recently, though, that you recently said you wish you were born in Iowa.

ALLEN: Well, during the gestation period, my father got his first head-coaching job -- was at Morningside College in Sioux City [Iowa] where my mother met him. My mother came over from Tunisia and fell in love with my father. They got married.

During the gestation period, my father got a job at Whittier College [California] -- the Poets, a fierce name for a team. And so, that's where I was born. Of course, my preference would have been my father got offered a job at the University of Virginia and I could have been born in Charlottesville like all my kids.

During a May 25 press conference, Allen highlighted his family's origins while discussing immigration reform. At the press conference, to apparently show that "we are all a nation of immigrants," Allen told reporters and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA): "My mother came from Tunisia, although she has about three-eighths Italian blood in her." Allen also emphasized his mother's Tunisian ties while discussing immigration reform during the April 2 edition of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Teasing Allen's interview, Stephanopoulos noted that Allen's mother was "an immigrant from Africa." Later, during his interview, Allen touted his mother's immigration to rail against "rewarding" illegal immigrants with "amnesty."

Yet as AMERICAblog's John Aravosis noted, the August 16 Post story failed to mention that Allen's mother emigrated from a North African country. Indeed, the Post's August 15 report also ignored that apparently salient fact, as did most other media outlets that have reported Allen's response to the "macaca" controversy. For example, neither MSNBC nor ABC noted Allen's family's ties to the region while reporting both on his use of the word "macaca" and his denial that he meant to employ the term's derogatory meaning, despite him touting his mother's Tunisian upbringing on their own news programs:

  • MSNBC: During the April 15 edition of Hardball, host Chris Matthews stated: "Republican Senator George Allen apologized for calling a rival campaign worker a 'Macaca,' a derogatory term for a North African." Later in the broadcast, MSNBC correspondent David Shuster elaborated, stating: "Macaca is a term that can refer to monkeys. Allen says he was making a reference to the young man's mohawk haircut. In any case, Allen has now apologized." Despite the fact that Allen noted his mother's North African ties during the June 19 broadcast of the show, neither Matthews nor Shuster ever mentioned Allen's Tunisian links while reporting on Allen's apology.
  • ABC: On the August 16 broadcast of Good Morning America, ABC News White House correspondent Jessica Yellin reported on Allen's "racially insensitive" remarks, noting: "Literally, 'macaca' describes an Asian monkey, but in Europe and some immigrant communities in America, 'macaca' is used as a racial slur." Yet, even though Allen himself highlighted his mother's French-Tunisian ancestry on the April 2 edition of This Week, Yellin failed to report the connection when she noted Allen's apology, and co-anchor Bill Weir also neglected to make the connection when he posed the question: "[I]s this just an innocent case of foot-in-mouth disease or something more sinister?"

Other outlets that neglected to note Allen's mother's ties to North Africa* include CNN, The New York Times, and the AP:

  • CNN: In multiple CNN reports on the incident and Allen's apology, CNN reporters or anchors have noted the racial epithet and Allen's denial, without ever reporting Allen's family's connection to the region and the language. For instance, reporting on the controversy during the August 16 edition of CNN's American Morning, CNN congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel referred to Allen's remarks as "off-the-cuff" and simply stated "in some European countries, "Makak" is used as a racial slur." Commenting on Koppel's report, CNN Worldwide anchor and reporter Carol Costello said: "So, you say potato, I say po-tah-ta. George Allen says 'macaca' instead of 'mohawk.' So, decide for yourself."
  • The New York Times: In both its August 16 news article and editorial on the incident, the Times also failed to note Allen's mother's upbringing and heritage. Times reporter David Stout wrote in the August 16 article, "Senator Says He Meant No Insult by Remark," that the term "macaca" was "a genus that includes numerous species of monkeys found in Asia." Stout then went on to note, citing the August 15 Post article, "Mr. Allen said Monday that he had meant no insult, that he was sorry if he hurt anyone's feelings and that he did not know what 'macaca' meant." In addition to ignoring Allen's familial connection to North Africa, neither Stout nor the Times' editorial board even noted the apparent derogatory meaning of the word in North African and European communities.
  • AP: In two August 16 wire reports, the AP also ignored both the derogatory meaning of "macaca" and Allen's mother's upbringing. Writing on Allen's denial, AP writer Larry O'Dell reported that Allen "said the name was 'just made up' and that he had no idea that macaca is a genus of monkeys including macaques." O'Dell further reported that "Allen has been accused of racial insensitivity before."

From the August 16 edition of ABC's Good Morning America:

WEIR: All right, Robin. So, damage control is under way this morning on the part of a U.S. senator who was caught on tape making what some are calling a racial slur. The senator has apologized, but is this just an innocent case of foot-in-mouth disease or something more sinister? Our Jessica Yellin in Washington has details. Jessica.

YELLIN: Good morning, Bill. Senator George Allen of Virginia is considered a Republican superstar, a safe bet to keep his seat in the Senate, and a serious presidential contender. But how quickly presidential and political fates can change, especially when there is a camera around, because now Allen is under the microscope for a racially insensitive comment he made, and it was all caught on tape.


YELLIN: The video has exploded on the Internet and put Senator George Allen in the hot seat.

MATTHEWS [clip]: Is this suicide by George Allen?

YELLIN: It happened at a campaign appearance. The senator used a little known racial slur, "macaca," to apparently mock a man of Indian descent.


YELLIN: Literally, "macaca" describes an Asian monkey, but in Europe and some immigrant communities in America, "macaca" is used as a racial slur.


YELLIN: In the age of YouTube and the Internet, you can be sure the gaffe will continue to hunt Senator Allen for years to come. The senator has since issued a statement saying that the word was, quote, "in no way intended to be racially derogatory," and he says, quote, "I apologize to anyone who may have been offended by the misinterpretation of my remarks." We understand he has not placed a call to Sidarth. Robin.

From the August 16 edition of CNN's American Morning:

COSTELLO: By now, maybe you know what "macaca" means. If you don't, you soon will. Senator George Allen is taking a lot of heat for uttering that word, but Allen says he was misunderstood by the media. But not everyone is so quick to forgive.

CNN congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel has more for you.

[begin video clip]

KOPPEL: Senator George Allen's videotaped off-the-cuff remarks were emailed to journalists by his Democratic opponent's campaign.

ALLEN: This fellow here, over here, with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is, he's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great.

KOPPEL: The fellow Senator Allen was referring to is 20-year-old S.R. Sidarth, an American college student of Indian descent, and, at least for the summer, a volunteer with the James Webb campaign.

Armed with this digital handycam, Sidarth had been assigned to track Senator Allen all last week, a common practice among some campaigns. But Sidarth says it wasn't until Friday, during a speech near the Kentucky border, and with Sidarth's camera rolling, that Allen singled him out in the crowd, twice referring to him as "Macaca," the scientific grouping for a type of monkey, and, in some European countries, "Makak" is used as a racial slur.

ALLEN: So, welcome -- let's give a welcome to Macaca here.

ALLEN: Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.

SIDARTH: I was disappointed that someone like a senator of the United States would use something completely offensive.

KOPPEL: Allen's communications director denies the senator was deliberately making a racially charged remark, telling CNN, the senator didn't know Sidarth's name. He said Allen staffers had nicknamed Sidarth "Mohawk" for the young man's short haircut, and perhaps the senator was confusing that nickname when he called him "Macaca."

Later in a statement, Allen said, he'd made up a nickname for Sidarth, "which was in no way intended to be racially derogatory. ... I apologize if my comments offended this young man."

But Sidarth says he had introduced himself to Allen earlier that week.

KOPPEL [on camera]: And you said, "My name is Sidarth"?

SIDARTH: Yes. He shook my hand. He also is very good with names, legendarily, he tries very hard to learn people's name when he's meeting them.

KOPPEL: In Allen's written statement, he also said his comments about a "welcome to America" and "the real world of Virginia" were aimed at his opponent, who Allen said had never been to that part of Virginia.

Andrea Koppel, CNN, Washington.

[end video clip]

COSTELLO: So, you say potato, I say po-tah-ta. George Allen says "macaca" instead of "mohawk." So, decide for yourself.

The Washington Post, MSNBC, The New York Times, ABC, CNN, Associated Press
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