A recent campaign ad from Fort Bend County, Texas, has members of the Asian-American community in an uproar.
The county’s Republican Party apologized after its ad targeting Hindu voters in The India Herald, an area paper, sparked controversy, with many calling it offensive.
The ad, placed in time for the Hindu festival Ganesh Chaturthi (which this year began on Sept. 13), depicted the god Ganesha, an elephant-headed deity. Likening the god to the Republican Party’s elephant symbol, the ad read, “Would you worship a donkey or an elephant? The choice is yours.”
The county has a large proportion of Asian-Americans — almost 20 percent of the population — and a relatively high number of Urdu, Gujarati and Hindi speakers. In a statement released Wednesday, Fort Bend County Republican Party Chairman Jacey Jetton said the ad was placed in “celebration” of the holiday.
“This ad was created with input from those of Hindu faith so that we could properly pay respect to the sacred festival,” Jetton wrote. “This highlights the difficulty in outreach that can be positive for one group but not for another in the same community. We offer our sincerest apologies to anyone that was offended by the ad. Obviously, that was not the intent.”
The ad, however, had already led to quite a backlash from members of the South Asian–American community locally and beyond. The Hindu American Foundation issued a statement calling on the county Republican Party to clarify its intentions.
“While we appreciate the Fort Bend County GOP’s attempt to reach out to Hindus on an important Hindu festival, its ad — equating Hindus’ veneration of the Lord Ganesha with choosing a political party based on its animal symbol — is problematic and offensive,” Rishi Bhutada, a foundation board member and Fort Bend resident, said in the press release.
Sri Preston Kulkarni — an Indian-American Democrat who’s running to represent Texas’ 22nd Congressional District, which includes much of Fort Bend County — shared the advertisement in a Facebook post, saying that “equating Hindus’ worship of Ganesh with a political party’s symbol is wrong and promotes inaccurate stereotypes about the Hindu-American community.”
“When I saw the ad, I was shocked. Imagine if this was about the Jewish religion or the Christian religion,” he told HuffPost. “Is that any way to talk about somebody’s faith? Asking Hindus to vote Republican by comparing a religious figure to the GOP’s mascot? In America we don’t worship political parties.”
Lakshmi Sridaran, the director of national policy and advocacy at South Asian Americans Leading Together, a social justice nonprofit, said that because South Asians are one of the fastest-growing demographics in the country, it’s not surprising that political parties are trying to reach the group ― but that doesn’t mean religion should be exploited for political gain.
“Focusing on the issues should be the most important component of appealing to any community,” she said. ”With such a significant South Asian–American population in this district, issues like immigration, civil rights, census 2020 and hate violence — which will be included in [SAALT’s] voter guide — should be the focus.”
Sridaran added that the ad is of particular concern because inappropriate or misleading representations of communities contribute to “racist rhetoric, discourse and narratives.”
As for the party’s response, she said politicians should be addressing issues that affect their communities. “Anything less than that is insufficient, including this conditional apology,” she said.
Calling on his opponent Rep. Pete Olson (R) to issue a statement on the ad, Kulkarni echoed Sridaran’s thoughts, saying, “The Republican Party’s apology was a step, but they need to do more to prove that they do not stand for such divisive rhetoric.”
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