Mel Gibson drove drunk and, when stopped by a traffic cop, slurred some anti-Semitic slurs. Some defended him thus: “it was just the liquor talking.” Trouble is, liquor does not talk, but people do, and as the old Romans said, “in vino veritas” — what we blurt out when drunk may well be what we really think, at other times suppressed by our inhibitions.

As far as I can tell (I was not there), U.S. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) was stone cold sober last Friday when he managed to call an opposition supporter of South Asian extraction a monkey. Since Allen not only wants to be re-elected to the Senate (over Democrat challenger Jim Webb), but is thought to be interested in running for president in 2008, he had better get his story straight. If it wasn’t the liquor talking, what was it, Senator? And why did you say “Welcome to America” to a man who was born and raised in Fairfax County, Virginia? Could it be that he was the only non-white person within sight?

What happened was that S. R. Sidarth, a young man who was born in Virginia and is of South Asian extraction, was attending an Allen campaign event as an observer and photographer for Webb. Seeing him in the crowd, Sen. Allen called him “Mr. Macaca” and said “Welcome to America.”

“Macaca” is the Latin name for a genus of monkeys found mostly in Asia and Africa. The famous “Gibraltar apes” are not actually apes but are one of the macaca monkey species. So are the cute “snow monkeys” of Japan, and the rhesus monkeys from India, so often used in scientific research. These monkeys are more often called “macaques” (from the French) when referred to in English by people who can tell one kind of monkey from another. I, like many people, happen to like monkeys and am interested in their evolutionary relationship to people. But most people can tell the difference between monkeys and people. Sen. Allen probably can too.

Allen now claims that he did not know that “macaca” meant a kind of monkey. He was just making up nonsense words, perhaps in emulation of the current White House incumbent, who has graced our language with wonders like ‘misunderestimate.’ Supporters said that Allen was referring to Sidarth’s “Mohawk” haircut because “macaca” sort of sounds like “Mohawk” (it doesn’t, and Sidarth does not have a Mohawk haircut). Or maybe the senator was just riffing on the word “caca.” Whether he was calling Sidarth monkey or excrement, it was equally ugly. That he added the pseudo-friendly “Welcome to America,” addressed to someone born only a couple of hundred miles from where the speech was made, gives away the motivation. If Sidarth had been named Smith and were blue-eyed, blonde-haired and pink-skinned, would Sen. Allen have said, “Welcome to America” to him? When he is on the campaign trail, does he usually greet potential voters with “Welcome to America”? I think not.

This year, the Republican plan for re-election includes baiting and bashing immigrants. This is supposed to deflect public anger away from the manifold abject failures and crimes of the Bush administration, including the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, and the failure to address any of the real economic and social problems this country faces. Allen has been participating fully in this mean-spirited scapegoating game — more, for example, than Virginia’s other Republican senator, John Warner. The racist content of the anti-immigrant movement is clear for all to see. It is dark-complected immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa, not those from Europe or Canada, who are being portrayed as contaminating our culture, stealing our jobs, bankrupting our social services and bringing in crime, terrorism and disease. Anti-immigrant propaganda seeks to portray these immigrants as less than human. A horde of ‘macacas’ perhaps?

Could it be that, whether he knew what “macaca” meant or not, what Sen. Allen was doing was baiting the young man as a non-white “foreigner”?

Do we need someone like this in the Senate, or the White House?

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist living in Virginia.