Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, has halfheartedly attempted to explain why he called Hispanic laborers “wetbacks” in an interview.
In an interview with KRBD radio in Ketchikan, Alaska, Young used the racist, anti-immigrant slur to describe migrant laborers who used to work on Young’s farm.
“My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,” he said in the interview. “It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”
Young issued a statement late Thursday expressing regret for the epithet, but his statement stopped short of a full apology.
“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,” said Young. “I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays, and I meant no disrespect.”
Young’s statement did not note the fact that wetback has always been a pejorative term, used to denigrate Hispanic workers as alien and un-American. Its etymology comes from the image it was intended to conjure, one of Mexican migrants who swam into the country illegally, their backs still wet from sneaking across the Rio Grande.
Young may have to make a more fulsome apology to stem the tide of outrage. He was attacked for his slur by Rep Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“He has served alongside Hispanics in Congress since 1973, so he should know terms like ‘wetback’ have never been acceptable,” said Hinojosa. “When elected officials use racial slurs, it sets back our nation and sets back legislators who are seriously working toward real, bipartisan solutions.”
Young was also attacked by fellow Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who called the slur “offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds.”
Young’s comments complicate the charm offensive Republicans have engaged in since President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012. With the Hispanic population in the United States growing rapidly and breaking decisively for the Democrats, Republicans have acknowledged that they must find a way to reach out to non-white voters, or risk facing a long period without control in Washington.
Nevertheless, Republicans also have a difficult tightrope to walk, as their base tends to be nativist and opposed to anything resembling multiculturalism. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who lost to Obama, was seen as having won his party’s endorsement in part by painting rivals as soft on immigration.
It’s no wonder, given that backdrop, that Democrats pounced on Young’s slur and non-apology, demanding that Republicans in competitive seats denounce Young’s statement. The fact that a member of the Republican caucus feels comfortable using a racial slur in an on-air interview is a jarring reminder that whatever the GOP may be saying about Hispanic voters, there is a not-so-hidden segment of the party that is openly racist, and not even all that sorry about it.
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