Ragheads

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Down in South Carolina, there's a weekly webcast from local bars called Pub Politics (slogan: "Beer … bringing Democrats and Republicans together"). The hosts are Phil Bailey, the Director of the SC Democratic Caucus, and Wesley Donehue, a Republican political consultant. The most recent episode was taped at the Flying Saucer bar in Columbia, and was scheduled to feature State Representative Boyd Brown. But State Senator Jake Knotts showed up and stole the show.

According to Corey Hutchins, "Sen. Knotts Calls Haley a 'Raghead,' Says 'We're at war over there'", Columbia Free Times, 6/4/2010:

With a bead of sweat rolling down the side of his face outside a Columbia bar, Republican S.C. Sen. Jake Knotts called Lexington Rep. Nikki Haley, an Indian-American Republican woman running for governor, a “raghead” several times while explaining how he believed she was hiding her true religion from voters.

“She’s a f#!king raghead,” Knotts said.

He later clarified his statement. He did not mean to use the F-word.

Knotts says he believed Haley has been set up by a network of Sikhs and was programmed to run for governor of South Carolina by outside influences in foreign countries. He claims she is hiding her religion and he wants the voters to know about it.

“We got a raghead in Washington; we don’t need one in South Carolina,” Knotts said more than once. “She’s a raghead that’s ashamed of her religion trying to hide it behind being Methodist for political reasons.” [...]

After the broadcast, Knotts stood in a corner on the deck of the bar and defended his remarks.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve said it,” Knotts said. “I’m not on a crusade to downgrade her, but if someone asks me I’ll tell ‘em. And look here, someone wants to vote for her knowing the truth, vote for her.”

Knotts said that South Carolina is a religious community.

“We need a good Christian to be our governor,” he said. “She’s hiding her religion. She ought to be proud of it. I’m proud of my god.”

Knotts says he believes Haley’s father has been sending letters to India saying that Haley is the first Sikh running for high office in America. He says her father walks around Lexington wearing a turban.

“We’re at war over there,” Knotts said.

Asked to clarify, he said he did not mean the United States was at war with India, but was at war with “foreign countries.”

According to the AP ("S.C. Sen. Jake Knotts refers to candidate Nikki Haley as 'raghead'"):

“If it had been recorded, the public would be able to hear firsthand that my ‘raghead' comments about Obama and Haley were intended in jest,” Knotts said in his statement. “Bear in mind that this is a freewheeling, anything-goes Internet radio show that is broadcast from a pub. It's like local political version of Saturday Night Live, which is actually where the joke came from.”

Other reports, however, indicate that his remarks were recorded, but were being witheld by the show's management (Tim Smith, "Bauer distances himself from supporter who made 'raghead' remark", GreenvilleOnline 6/5/2010):

The two men who run Pub Politics, Senate Democratic Caucus spokesman Phil Bailey and Senate GOP Caucus spokesman Wes Donehue, announced Friday that unlike past shows they wouldn't be airing the episode containing Knotts' comments.

“As we've said from the beginning of this show, our goal has always been to show the lighter side of politics in South Carolina,” the pair said in a statement.

“We want to show people that politics can be fun and you can talk civilly with those who disagree with you. What Sen. Knotts said on Thursday's show does not fit with our program and its goals.”

Either way, it appears that Sen. Knotts' remarks will unfortunately not be appearing on YouTube. The best I can do for now is to reproduce this set of comments on Gov. Sanford's Appalachian Trail episode, which may help readers to imagine what the Pub Politics appearance might have been like:

Following some local and national furor, Sen. Knotts has produced what must be the most ineffective non-apology apology in recent history (Philip Rucker, "Apology follows inflammatory comment in S.C. race", WaPo 6/5/2010):

In a statement to local reporters, Knotts said: "Bear in mind that this is a freewheeling, anything-goes Internet radio show that is broadcast from a pub. It's like a local political version of 'Saturday Night Live.' Since my intended humorous context was lost in translation, I apologize. I still believe Ms. Haley is pretending to be someone she is not, much as Obama did, but I apologize to both for an unintended slur."

Gail Collins' comment on this is worth repeating:

Loads of exciting primaries next week! Although it’ll be hard to top the one in South Carolina, where two Tea Party candidates are fighting about a lie detector test and a state senator has argued that racist comments he made over the radio don’t really count since the interview occurred in a bar. [...]

Knotts seemed to feel as if it was unfair for anyone to quote him since he made his remarks on “a freewheeling, anything-goes Internet radio show that is broadcast from a pub. It’s like local political version of ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ” He is possibly the only person in America who is unaware that 1) “Saturday Night Live” has a script, and 2) it is never a good plan to appear on a talk show that takes place inside a saloon.

According to the OED, rag-head is "orig. and chiefly U.S. slang (derogatory and offensive)" for "a person who wears a head cloth or turban; a native or inhabitant of a country where such items are customarily worn, esp. a Middle Eastern person". The online version of the dictionary gives only two citations:

1921 P. CASEY & T. CASEY Gay-cat vi. 70 It's the *Ragheads all right — a whole army of Hindoo laborers. 2003 A. SWOFFORD Jarhead 16 I'm proud of our president standing up to the evil. Them ragheads is gonna go down.

But there have been several other important recent political examples, most notably and recently the 2009 video clip of Prince Harry ("Video Slur Puts Prince Harry Back in Headlines", NYT 1/12/2009:

In the clip that made headlines here, Prince Harry trains the camera on officer cadets sleeping on the floor, then zooms in on one who is awake.

“Anybody else around here?” the prince says. “Ah, our little Paki friend, Ahmed.” The reference was to Ahmed Raza Khan, now a captain in the Pakistani Army, who excelled at Sandhurst to the point that the prince’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, awarded him the Sword of Honor as best foreign cadet of the year.

The tape also includes a sequence in which Prince Harry spots another cadet with camouflage netting over his helmet during a night exercise and says, “It’s Dan the man.” After an expletive, he adds, “you look like a raghead” — a derogatory term used usually to refer to Arabs. A royal spokesman said the prince had used it as British soldiers commonly do in Afghanistan and Iraq, as an epithet for insurgents.

Another reasonably famous recent example was Ann Coulter's 2006 CPAC speech, where she said in reference to Iran,

I think our motto should be, post-9-11: raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences.

As the uses by Knotts and Coulter indicate, the meaning of raghead has been generalized beyond "a native or inhabitant of a country where such items [as a head cloth or turban] are customarily worn", since head-cloths and turbans are not at all characteristic of modern Iran [or at least not of men like Ahmedinejad, whom she was addressing], and have never been a feature of Kenya, where President Obama's father was born.

In the case of Sen. Knotts, who grew up rough and quit high school to join the Navy, the generalization is presumably just a matter of careless ignorance — to lump Kenyans and Sikhs together with Arabs as a sort of generic class of dangerous foreigners is spectacularly uninformed, but he seems to be well qualified for the task.

In contrast, Ann Coulter is a graduate of Cornell University and the University of Michigan Law School, and it's clear that at CPAC, she was just looking for a way to be as offensive as possible. Her CPAC remarks were a variant of an earlier column where she made her intent to offend explicit:

If you don't want to get shot by the police, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then don't point a toy gun at them. Or, as I believe our motto should be after 9/11: Jihad monkey talks tough; jihad monkey takes the consequences. Sorry, I realize that's offensive. How about "camel jockey"? What? Now what'd I say? Boy, you tent merchants sure are touchy. Grow up, would you?

Sen. Knotts' "raghead" remarks have the special feature that they were directed partly against Nikki Haley, a right-wing Republican candidate who was endorsed by Sarah Palin. This has put many people who defended Ann Coulter in an uncomfortable position. For example, the white supremacist Robert Stacy McCain wrote:

Certainly, I’m the last person on the planet to be screaming “raaaaacist” at other people, but it’s shocking enough that a Republican would use such language to describe President Obama. For a Republican to use it against a fellow Republican — Nikki Haley is a Christian of Sikh ancestry — is so wrong as to defy comprehension.

Some other commenters on the right were less restrained.



18 Comments

  1. sarang said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    I would assume that Obama counts as a "raghead" because he's Muslim?

  2. sarang said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    (I should probably have used more scare quotes in that comment.)

  3. jfruh said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

    …since head-cloths and turbans are not at all characteristic of modern Iran…

    Actually, while turbans aren't a head covering worn by Iranian men at large, they are part of the standard uniform of Shi'ite clerics, which means that Iran's political leadership is disproportionately turbaned when compared to the general population. See for instance Current Supreme Leader Khamenei, his predecessor Kohmeini, and, on the other side of the political divide, former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani. Of course, there are non-clerics in Iranian government — the current president Ahmadinejad is an example, and he goes in for very Western-looking clothes — and since Shi'ism isn't synonymous with Iran, there are non-Iranian examples, like the Iraqi Moqtada al-Sadr.

    (Obviously I'm not saying that people with turbans should be called ragheads, just that people with turbans do inform the Western perception of Iranians, even if it isn't part of everday dress for most Iranian men.)

    [(myl) You're right, of course -- but she was addressing Ahmedinejad, who isn't a cleric...]

  4. KCinDC said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    Applying the term to Obama could be connected to this photo, which some conservatives got quite exercised about.

  5. John Lawler said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    R
    I say R-A
    R-A-G
    R-A-G-G
    Ragg
    R-A-G-G H-E-A-D
    Raghead
    Doo-doo-doo-DAH-dee-ah-dah
    ||: D.C. al fine :||
    R-A-G-G H-E-A-D
    Raghead!
    (with apologies to the Mills Brothers)

  6. Sili said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

    With a bead of sweat rolling down the side of his face outside a Columbia bar,

    Great. When did bad fanfic authors start writing for the papers?

  7. Mark P said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

    The only thing that's remarkable about this episode is that it was done in such a spectacularly stupid way – in a public arena where those who don't agree end up hearing it. It's the prejudice that dare not speak its name where it can be recorded by people who don't agree.

  8. Thor Lawrence said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    As a matter of interest, what is the geographical distribution or origin of the term raghead?

  9. D.O. said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

    It's interesting how the soldiers call their adversaries. When Soviet Union fought in Afghanistan, the most popular nickname for the other side was dushman, Persian for enemy, if I got it right. Sometimes (make it oftentimes) in plural reduced to 'duhi, which in Russian would mean ghosts, but I am not sure that this coincidence helped to create the coinage. Now the question, how do American soldiers colloquially refer to the other side in Afghan?

  10. Private Zydeco said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

    Wikipedia has picked this little oratory embarassment up right quick
    if it's already been appended to (soon-to-be-former?) Sen. Knotts'
    own entry-page. Here it is the fifth, and not an iota of a scintilla too soon, that is to say. Astonishing.

  11. KCinDC said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 8:53 pm

    Private Zydeco, embarrassing political developments are reflected in Wikipedia nearly as fast as celebrity deaths are, which is to say within hours if not minutes. For the more prominent events, the page often needs to be protected by administrators to keep the (real or imagined) scandal from swamping the article and to avoid the constant edit warring between political factions.

  12. Áine ní Dhonnchadha said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

    AFAIK from what I've been told, they are referred to as "jihadis" or "ragheads" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  13. dw said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 12:56 am

    I found a couple of early datings of "raghead" on Google Books.

    The word appears three times in the 1918 short story "Boldero" by Henry Milner Rideout.
    Here's a link to the first occurrence. The first two uses of the word in the novel clearly refer to Sikhs. I can't be bothered to read enough of the context to figure out what the last one is supposed to mean.

    "Raghead" also appears in a 1921 list of words from the University of California (presumably Berkeley) written for the American Dialect Society. It's defined as "a Hindu; any Asiatic".

  14. Kylopod said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

    Racial and ethnic slurs know no boundaries. Since they are motivated by ignorance and prejudice, it should come as no surprise that they are applied with extreme imprecision. You'll hear the word "chink" applied to non-Chinese Asians, and of course "macaca" applied to an Indian-American.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 7:34 am

    Since the core image of "raghead" refers to some sort of head covering typically worn by the males but not the females of the relevant population, I wonder if there are prior instances of the same derogatory term being applied to the corresponding females. Is there another example of an ethnic nickname or derogatory term that is now commonly applied to both sexes although the particular stereotypically-observed trait it is based on is stereotypically characteristic only of one sex in the subject population? I can't think of one, but my knowledge of the relevant lexicon is hardly exhaustive.

  16. April K said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 6:08 pm

    The term "haji" (see Quest, Johnny) is also used by some US troops to refer to Afghanis. I leave it to you to decide if this is more or less derogatory than "raghead."

    On the other hand, I find "jihadi" to be about as descriptive and accurate (when referring to the foe) than most terms used by soldiers.

  17. rpsms said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    I am more intrigued by his assertions of knowledge about the contents of her father's mail.

  18. TGGP said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 2:42 am

    RS McCain may be dislikable for a host of reasons, but as far as I can tell he's not a white supremacist/nationalist. He seems to fit the standard "Conservative Inc" a la Michelle Malkin mold. And it has never, ever, been a good idea to cite Little Green Footballs as a reliable source of information.

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