By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
An email implying that a candidate for the Newcastle City Council is a “member of the Chinese Communist Party” was denounced by civil rights groups as drawing upon a history of anti-Asian and anti-immigrant rhetoric and violence. It was considered particularly incendiary since anti-Asian hate speech has preceded and spilled over into violence against Asians and Asian Americans during the pandemic.
“A racist, red-baiting, anti-immigrant, anti-Chinese email was recently sent out by a group calling themselves the Newcastle Watchdogs. In it, these ‘watchdogs’ attack Sun Burford, candidate for Newcastle City Council, using innuendo, insinuation, and libelous statements to demean and discredit her in the eyes of Newcastle voters,” said Stanley N. Shikuma, co-president of the Japanese American Citizens League, Seattle Chapter.
“They would have us believe that she is part of some sinister Chinese plot to infiltrate the Newcastle City Council. They play upon her status as an immigrant, her ethnicity, and current rivalries with China to appeal to old prejudices and stir up new fears.”
Newcastle Watchdogs, a conservative organization co-founded by a former Newcastle city councilmember, branded Burford a Chinese Communist sleeper agent—because she held a city planning job in China three decades ago before immigrating to the United States, a position she disclosed in her city planning application.
In an email widely distributed to the Newcastle community and beyond, the group insinuated that Burford, a longtime middle school Chinese teacher in the Bellevue School District, could show her “true colors” after she gained an elected position.
“Newcastle voters may want to ask Sun Burford: Have you ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party?” said the email, which also endorsed her opponent and other conservative candidates in the race. “Newcastle voters may also want to ask Sun Burford: Have you been trained by the Chinese Communist Party to remain neutral in the public eye and never show your true colors until you are secure in your position?”
Following the dissemination of the email on Oct. 6, the progressive candidates in the Newcastle race at a candidate forum asked the conservative candidates to denounce the email as racist. Not one did.
The Newcastle Watchdogs did not respond to emailed questions about their email and whether it implied that any immigrant who had worked for a local government overseas was a potential sleeper agent.
Len Trautman, Burford’s opponent, also did not respond to emailed questions including one about whether his unwillingness to stand up for an Asian immigrant signified that he would not stand up for other immigrants in his community.
Newcastle is 53% populated by residents of color and 34% by Asians.
OCA–Asian Pacific American Advocates—Greater Seattle Chapter repudiated the smear.
“For centuries, Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders have been labeled as ‘perpetual foreigners,’ and accused of dual loyalty to their ancestral country and United States—often used as a scare tactic against our community,” said Connie So, president. “The language that our leaders use is important. Following this week’s report of anti-China language being used in a local election, we demand that all candidates refrain from using harmful rhetoric that is based on an individuals’ race as a political tactic. Elections should be about issues, not unfounded personal attacks. Period.”
OCA is a member-driven social justice organization of community advocates dedicated to advancing the social, political, and economic well-being of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs).
The email stated that Burford helped “with citywide public works projects” in a district of Tianjin. It also alleged that Burford had ties to a Confucius Institute in Boston. The Confucius Institutes were part of China’s past attempts to spread culture and language abroad. They were subsequently demonized by right-wing Republicans in Congress as undermining the college campuses or schools with which they were affiliated.
The email presented no evidence about the first accusation.
For the second, it stated that Burford had received a campaign contribution of $200 from an International Studies and Scholars advisor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston who briefly served as the head of the Confucius Institute there.
“Newcastle voters may want to ask Sun Burford: How do you know your campaign donor?” the email stated. “Who else on Sun Burford’s donor list may be associated with the Chinese Communist Party?”
In an interview with Northwest Asian Weekly, Burford denied both accusations and condemned them as contributing to a narrative about Asians as unreliable and disloyal citizens—a narrative that was propagated during countless historical events in U.S. history.
Burford’s grandfather was a landlord and considered a capitalist after the Chinese revolution of 1949, which put her father and her family into the category of “the four black types,” meaning those who would be discriminated against by the party and denied many privileges, she said.
It was through her hard work in school that allowed her to obtain a position as a public relations manager for a city planning company after she had majored in Chinese language arts and comparative literature.
Not only did she say she was never a member of the Chinese Communist Party, but she worked for a decade for the U.S. Department of Defense as a language trainer and site inspector for a national security program, she said.
As for her connection to the donor, Burford said she met her several times at world language conferences, and they shared a passion for teaching Chinese.
Burford was initially reluctant to respond to the email. But she joined the race in part because of the upswell of anti-Asian hate speech and crimes over the past few years and in centuries past, she said,
“What they did was completely wrong, but we’ve just wanted to be positive and support each other so we didn’t want to make a huge thing about it,” she said. “But there were some people who looked at our faces during the pandemic and said ‘go back home,’ that’s why I felt I wanted to do something.”
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1889 and the incarceration of people with Japanese ancestry in concentration camps during World War II also made her heart “heavy,” she said.
Moreover, the myth of the model minority, which defines Asians as pleasers and rule-followers can be used to attack them.
“People oftentimes feel we are not citizens because we don’t really speak up. We do not want to be silent.”
All Americans are equal?
During a candidate forum on Oct. 10, three of the progressive candidates asked his or her conservative opponent to denounce the email.
Instead, many of them claimed that they made no distinctions among all Americans, a claim that the email’s argument seemed to belie.
Burford’s opponent, Len Trautman said that as a white person he was now in the minority in Newcastle but wasn’t seeking to exploit his status.
“According to recent statistics, I’m an under-representative in the city. But I’m not looking for special attention.”
It “crossed the line”
Conservative members of the council have also opposed the creation of an AAPI commission.
According to Newcastle Deputy Mayor Ariana Sherlock, the purpose of such a commission would be to more deeply ascertain the preferences and needs of the AAPI population.
“The culture is not engaged a lot in local government, we hope to bring them to the table so they can have their voices heard, that’s the hope, but we want to make sure it’s what they want,” she said in an interview.
Sherlock has been providing support to Councilmember Chris Villasenor, who has been leading the effort.
The need is pressing. Of the 13,000 people in the city, under 9,000 are registered to vote. And during local elections, less than 40% of registered voters vote, said Sherlock.
The stakes are high since recent races have been decided by less than a dozen votes.
The Newcastle Watchdogs has been the source of “a lot of misinformation” before, said Sherlock. “But the racist part of this email really just crossed the line for me.”
Newcastle itself has a history of racist atrocities against Chinese. Anti-Chinese violence between 1885 and 1886 culminated in white labor organizations burning down the homes of Chinese miners along Coal Creek. Three Chinese were killed in the spreading violence, according to the University of Washington Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest.
With that history in mind, many see recent anti-Asian hate crimes as part of a longer continuum—including the email and its insinuations.
“In other times, such ludicrous statements might be laughable and unworthy of mention. Yet just last month, an older white man stated ‘it’s all the Chinese fault—someone has to do something about them and that’s why I came to Chinatown’ as he took a sledgehammer and broke nine plate glass windows at the Wing Luke Museum. (I know—I was there)” said Shikuma.
The Newcastle Watchdogs self identifies as “dedicated to transparency and good government in the City of Newcastle.”
The group was co-founded by Nola Coston and Bill Erxleben, Newcastle residents, on March 6, 2017.
“The defamatory and incendiary verbiage sent out by the Newcastle Watchdogs can inflame and inspire people to commit racist, anti-Asian acts,” said Shikuma. “We must not ignore these statements, no matter how twisted and illogical they seem, because someone may be listening and ready to act on them. As Japanese Americans whose families were removed and incarcerated during WWII, we know where such rhetoric can lead if left unchecked and unchallenged.
Shikuma continued, “We sincerely hope that residents of Newcastle will reject these calls for division and fear and instead strive to share cultures and ideas, educate each other on our similarities and differences, and build an inclusive and respectful community. We are always stronger together.”
Said Burford, “It’s really dangerous for some people still trying to turn the clock back against what we have fought for for more than a century. They want to turn the clock back. I think they cannot do that. That’s why a lot of us have to stand up. I know it’s hard, but you have to defend yourself.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.