AURORA, Colo. — A white city councilman is rebuffing calls to resign for using racial and religious stereotypes to portray Muslim, Latino, Black and Asian people on videos intended to promote his sports bar.
Steve Sundberg posted the videos to the Facebook page of Legends of Aurora Sports Grill in 2020, but they only caught the attention of leaders and advocacy groups in December.
Sundberg has since apologized and removed the videos, saying they were an attempt at humor during the darkest days of the pandemic, but he continues to draw outrage from constituents, other council members and elected statewide leaders who are all demanding his resignation.
The situation is reminiscent of last year's racism scandal in Los Angeles where a recording surfaced of three Latino council members and a Latino labor leader making crude, bigoted comments about Black people.
One of the three, former Council President Nury Martinez, resigned shortly after the recording became public. But the other two, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, resisted widespread calls to step down, including from President Joe Biden. Cedillo's term ended in December, but de León is still on the council.
Sundberg, who made more than a dozen videos before he was elected in 2021, is shown in one wearing traditional Muslim clothing and a turban while sitting on a prayer mat, reading reviews of his restaurant aloud in a Middle Eastern accent.
“Hey, it’s Steve Syeed from Legends. My job is respond Google and Yelp review,” he said, intentionally butchering the language.
When an employee approaches and asks if he wants bacon, the councilman grabs a scimitar and appears to repeatedly yell out “haram,” an Arabic word meaning that something is forbidden for Muslims to consume, use or do.
In another video, Sundberg pretends to be a man named Victor, a Spanish translator wearing a poncho and promoting the day’s menu special — a beef or chicken enchilada plate with cheese and onions — in broken Spanish and English.
Reached by phone, Sundberg defended the videos, saying he has portrayed several characters over the years on his restaurant's website, including a crocodile hunter and a French chef, and these were no different.
Before rushing off the phone, Sundberg added that no one expressed concern about the videos when they were first posted and that media reports of subsequent dissent had been exaggerated.
“In a dark Covid shut down, when businesses were fighting to survive, with people experiencing mental health issues, uncertainty, suicide, substance abuse, domestic violence and fear, we were able to provide through a number of videos, humor and light heartedness, which drove business and cheered people up,” the councilman later wrote in a text message.
But not everyone is laughing.
“He feels like he’s above reproach,” said Aurora City Councilman Juan Marcano, who is Latino and thinks Sundberg should resign. “I grew up with people like this, they think that racism is humor. When people show you who they are, believe them.”
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a nonprofit advocacy group, said Sundberg’s videos were offensive and intended to demonize Muslim traditions.
“It’s Islamophobia,” Hussein said, adding that Sundberg nonchalantly mocked and belittled Muslim customs.
Aurora, with nearly 400,000 residents, is one of the most diverse cities in Colorado. About 30% of its population is Latino, 16% is Black, and 6 % Asian, according to U.S. census data.
Victor Marquez, a Latino chef at the sports grill, defended Sundberg during a City Council meeting last month, saying the restaurant was struggling and facing possible closure when a plan was devised to make the skits to attract business.
“We didn’t want to harm anybody. We decided instead of closing the business, we would do marketing,” Marquez said in Spanish through an interpreter, adding that some staff members had been laid off before the videos were made.
But some state lawmakers said there was no excuse for Sundberg’s actions.
State Rep. Iman Jodeh, a Democrat who in 2020 became Colorado’s first Muslim lawmaker, said Sundberg should step down.
“I think what he did was inexcusable,” said Jodeh, whose district includes Aurora. “It’s exhausting, constantly having to call people out or explain to them what they’re doing wrong.”
In a third video, Sundberg pretends to promote the day’s $10.99 special — chicken curry, vegetables and white rice — in a South Asian accent.
“But we must warn you, it’s like an aphrodisiac when you taste this stuff,” he says.
In a fourth video, promoting Legends’ dark lager beer, also known as black beer, Sundberg uses a German accent as he talks in a men’s bathroom stall with a Black patron, repeating a stereotype about Black men's genitalia.
At the City Council meeting last month, several residents demanded that Sundberg resign. Aurora Councilwoman Alison Coombs agreed with them.
“He had the opportunity to make amends, and his approach did not succeed,” she said, adding she believes Sundberg has not owned up to the harm he caused because he continues to maintain it was all a joke.
“It’s been harmful to the community, and his response has been inappropriate,” Coombs said.
On Wednesday, a couple dozen customers sat inside Legends, sipping beer, eating food and watching sports. Some called Sundberg a pillar in the community, known to raise money for people in need.
“This thing about him is absurd, “ customer Don Blosser said. “I can’t think of anyone here who would call him a racist.”
Manager Michele Long, a Latina, said the promotional videos were an attempt to stay relevant during the pandemic.
“They were never meant to be malicious,” she said, adding, however, that she understands how people could view them as offensive.