Open Alaskan mouth, insert Alaskan foot. In an interview with Ketchikan Public Radio, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) used derogatory language to describe life on his father’s farm. “My father had a ranch, we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,” he said. “It takes two people to do this work now, it’s all done by machine.” The Congressman’s language quickly led to controversy, and by late Friday he had apologized.
Twice. Young’s initial statement was neither a full apology nor a complete admission of guilt. It took a full day of public scolding and shame for him to disown his words. The lesson here is that it is grossly inappropriate for any lawmaker to use such hate speech, let alone one from a party that is trying to rebrand itself among Latinos. Unfortunately, Young is so out of touch that he does not realize that “wetback” is an indefensible ethnic slur.
In his first apology on Thursday, Young said, “During a sit down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio this week, I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California. I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect.”
That apology fell short. First of all, Young did not actually say that he was sorry. Secondly, the fact that “wetback” was once in more common usage is no excuse for using it today. The n-word was once in common usage; would any civilized person consider that a justification for using it now? And whether Young meant any disrespect is irrelevant. The disrespect was self-evident and ugly.
Young was also wrong to suggest that “wetback” is used differently today than in years past. The term was originally coined to refer to Mexican immigrants who crossed the Rio Grande to work in the Southwest. However, it has never been used in a positive way. It is an enduring insult to immigrants as well as Hispanics.
Young’s comments are disturbing because they were not secretly recorded, or made off the cuff. He was speaking in a radio interview; imagine what he says in private. Then again, The Washington Post calls Young “no stranger to controversy” due to his long history of imprudent comments and alleged ethical improprieties.
To their credit, GOP lawmakers denounced Young’s comments. House Majority leader John Boehner (R-OH) said, “Congressman Young’s remarks were offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) criticized Young for reinforcing a negative image of the Republican party. Migrant workers, Cornyn noted, come to the U.S. for opportunity, not to hear ethnic slurs from elected officials. He’s right. Still, with the GOP just announcing their intention to remake themselves as more inclusive and appealing to Hispanics, Young’s comments are exactly what the party does not need now – another example of Republican insensitivity towards Latinos.
True, it is unfair to judge the entire Republican party by the words of one Congressman. But Young is only the latest Republican to turn off Hispanics in a very public way. From Rep. Steve King, who once compared immigrants to dogs and then insisted it was a compliment, to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, poster child for anti-immigrant sentiment run amuck, the GOP has a problem relating to Latinos. No wonder the Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative group, issued a memo to GOP lawmakers on how to talk to Latinos.
Young’s comments were deserving of condemnation. His fellow Republicans, Hispanics and Americans know better; “wetback” has never been acceptable language, and it never will be.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.