“My father had a ranch. We used to hire 50 or 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,” Young said in the interview with KRBD. “You know, it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.” Don Young, Rep. (R-Alaska) [Source; emphasis added]
Let’s start with that, the comment.
Made by a man born in the state of California, where he lived his first 26 years; a state filled with people from various countries south of the border who play an integral role in the economy and culture of that great state, as well as many others. Despite his ultimate move to Alaska, another state filled with people of color, racial diversity and – one can presume – its own population of members of the Latino community, it’s a good guess that Rep. Young, who claims in the bio on his website that he is the “Congressman for All Alaska,” understands the meaning of words; their impact, their intent; their ability to set off firestorms.
And it is a safe bet that there is no one from Rep. Young’s generation who does not know that the term “wetbacks” is as much a racial slur to people of Latin American heritage as “kikes” is to Jews, “waps” to Italians,” “slant-eyes” to Asians; “ni**ers” to African Americans, and “towel heads” to Middle Easterners. It is a term used in a derogatory way to refer, specifically, to Mexicans who, historically, made their way to the United States by swimming across the Rio Grande river (hence, “wetbacks”), but has been vernacularized to imply negative reference to any person of Latino heritage. It’s not equivocal; everyone of a certain age knows what it means (it’s less used by younger racists who have their own, more contemporary slurs), and it’s clear, when used, that the intent it NOT to indicate respect, honor, or even basic good manners. It’s a slur.
So when a member of the United States government, one who claims to be the representative for “all” his state, blithely and with impunity, uses the word on public radio to refer to the workers toiling on his father’s ranch when he was young, one can only assume he’s so inured to the ugliness of the word, it flows off his tongue like so much water. Like it would for a true racist; or, at least, a very clueless one.
Of course now, after the fact, after his colleagues have stepped up to rebuke him, demand apology, do anything and everything to put out yet another fire set by a member of the GOP in service to intolerance, insensitivity, lack of racial awareness, and downright ignorance, he’s walking it back. He’s expressing regret. He’s offering apology:
“I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska. There was no malice in my heart or intent to offend; it was a poor choice of words. That word, and the negative attitudes that come with it, should be left in the 20th century, and I’m sorry that this has shifted our focus away from comprehensive immigration reform.” [Source]
Yes, it should be left in the 20th century and yet, there you are, Rep. Young, throwing it all over the airwaves right here in 2013. Did you just not realize we’ve actually moved out of that earlier century, into a new one; one in which the RNC chairman, Reince Preibus just released the new “Growth and Opportunity Project” designed to drag, kicking and screaming, the GOP into the century we’re actually in? One in which diversity and big-tent thinking will be mandatory to overcome the, heretofore, GOP brand of old, white, rich, racially insensitive, socially intolerant men? Apparently you didn’t get the memo, Rep. Young, because you’re still mired in old-timey ignorance and distasteful, offensive thinking. Your apology may have been forced and inevitable, but it shouldn’t even have been necessary.
And speaking of forced apologies, it bears note that many of Rep. Young’s GOP colleagues did get the memo, and they were none too pleased to have one of their own out there on the public stage actively sabotaging the Growth and Opportunity Project before it was even a month old. Before the outrage could metastasize into a full-blown epidemic of public and partisan backlash, the leaders and higher-profile member of Young’s own party wisely and quickly stepped up to rebuke their errant colleague and demand the apology that ultimately came.
From House Speaker John Boehner:
“Congressman Young’s remarks were offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds,” Boehner said. “I don’t care why he said it — there’s no excuse and it warrants an immediate apology.” [Source]
From RNC Chairman Reince Preibus:
Priebus said Young’s original words “emphatically do not represent the beliefs of the Republican Party.”
“As I have continued to say, everyone in this country deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” he said. “Our party represents freedom and opportunity for every American and a beacon of hope to those seeking liberty throughout the world.” [Source]
Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas):
“Migrant workers come to America looking for opportunity and a way to provide a better life for their families,” Cornyn said. “They do not come to this country to hear ethnic slurs and derogatory language from elected officials. The comments used by Rep. Young do nothing to elevate our party, political discourse or the millions who come here looking for economic opportunity.” [Source]
Senator John McCain (R-AZ):
“Don Young’s comments were offensive and have no place in our Party or in our nation’s discourse. He should apologize immediately” [Source: Twitter]
Of course, Democrats didn’t need a memo to know what was wrong with Young’s comment, nor did they hesitate to express their disdain, with House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), covering, in one statement, what, likely, every Democrat believes:
“Congressman Young’s comments were deeply hurtful, offensive and inappropriate for anyone to utter, let alone a Member of the United States Congress,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Congressman Young should fully apologize for deeply offensive comments that were not appropriate in his youth or now.” [Source]
Ultimately, it was the words of Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas) that spoke most specifically and directly to the issue.
“As the Republican minority outreach efforts develop, I’d advise their strategists to list ‘don’t say racial slurs like “wetback”‘ as a bedrock for their messaging,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “Our country needs reform that can only be achieved with a bipartisan effort. I am urging Republican leaders, including Speaker Boehner, to condemn this behavior and ask members in their party to act responsibly.” [Source]
It appears Republican leaders heeded his words today. It would seem a wise choice for everyone in this great, grand country of ours to do the same.