"I used to own -- my father had a ranch. We used to hire 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes. You know it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It's all done by machine."[Anchorage Daily News]There's a lot of coverage and I thought I'd try to put it into context. Like everyone, Don Young plays a lot of roles. Whether his remark matters depends on what role he's playing. He said it in the role of Alaskan Congressman, in Ketchikan. We can try to understand what it meant to him looking at his roles as the son of a California farmer who used migrant labor to pick tomatoes and his role as an old man. ('Old' is at least five years older than I am.) He got crap over this in his role as one of the senior Republican members of Congress at a time when Republicans are trying to court Latinos. So, will this be enough for Alaskans to elect a new member of Congress in 2014? Let's play this out.
First, for those who have never actually heard someone use this term, a little history from the Urban Dictionary:
"Wetback is a derogatory term used to describe Mexicans who have immigrated illegally to the United States by swimming or wading across the Rio Grande--the river that separates the U.S. from Mexico. U.S. Border Patrol began using the word in 1944 to refer to illegal Mexican immigrants who were easily identifiable by their wet clothing. In 1954, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service made the word "wetback" official by naming the mission to remove illegal immigrants from the United States, Operation Wetback . In response to the increase of immigrants during the early 1950s, the agency developed the program to force immigrants (particularly Mexicans) back to their home countries. Approximately one million Mexican Americans were deported in one year. Today the term "wetback" is often used to express animosity towards Central American or Latin American immigrants--legal and illegal--who do not speak English. Meanwhile, in an attempt to reclaim the word, some Mexican-Americans call themselves Los Mojados, meaning "the wet ones."
SON OF A CALIFORNIA FARMER
Just as dehumanizing racial slurs make it easier for soldiers to kill the enemy ('gooks' weren't really human), they also allow farmers to rationalize the terrible working and living conditions that migrant workers experience. "It's ok, they don't know any better, they're just 'wetbacks.' This is an improvement from what they have back at home."
Most kids accept these things they learn from their parents. Others grow to recognize the injustice. Don Young apparently never did. Does this make Don Young a racist? Using the term racist is also not a good idea because it transforms a racist act into an identity of a person. For this reason it tends to make people defensive. He clearly used an offensive and racist term. It's racist because it judges people based on their skin color AND it's a term that the society officially (it was the name of a federal program) used to help keep migrant workers "in their place."
I don't think that Don Young would treat someone badly simply because he has darker skin than Young has. He was, after all, married to an Alaskan Native woman for many years. But Don Young's superiority complex comes out in bullying people who disagree with him. While he can be charming when he has to be, he can also be nasty. You can see an example of his bullying when Dr. Doug Brinkley testified in Congress. Brinkley was one person who was able to stand up to Young.
DON YOUNG: REPUBLICAN U.S. CONGRESSMAN
To understand why this particular remark has generated so much attention, we have to understand that in their post-election self-examination, Republicans discovered that the fastest growing group in the US doesn't much like Republicans. Don Young isn't an exception. From Bloomberg:
"With 71 percent of Hispanic voters casting their ballots for President Barack Obama in November, the Republican Party is hungry for inroads with an electorate who, according to surveys, find little identification with the party — just 22 percent of Hispanics identify themselves as Republican."The Republicans lost two US Senate seats, in part if not wholly, because the Republican candidates made outrageous comments about women. Now, here comes Don Young doing the same about Hispanics. As Julia O'Malley pointed out in the Anchorage Daily News this morning, Alaskan politicians used to be able to say things like this in small Alaskan communities, but with technological advances, politicians are now potentially ALWAYS on a national stage.
DON YOUNG: ALASKAN CONGRESSMAN
Don Young's 'wetback' statement is no surprise to Alaskans. He's been saying outrageous things forever. Reporters have made their careers off his malapropisms. I've voted against Don Young every two years since 1978, but in this Red State, he keeps getting reelected.
People expect him to say such things here. A certain percent of the population don't understand what the fuss is about. Others don't care as long as he brings the pork back from DC, a skill he touts when he campaigns.
Will this remark matter in Alaska? He's probably better for Alaska - and the country - than some of the ideologues in the Alaska Republican party who might challenge him in the primaries. But the Republican faithful won't be all that upset with his comment itself, except that it might alienate Hispanic voters. At this point, I've stopped holding my breath that a Democrat will beat him.
DON YOUNG: OLD MAN
As people get older, we all know that body parts slow down, their brains aren't as sharp. They use terms that are no longer acceptable. We should forgive them. At least that's opinion of Hector Luis Alamo Jr at Being Latino:
"An old man saying “we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes” is like old white person saying “I was raised by a colored woman.” Sure, it makes you wince. But such uses usually get a pass — as they should — because we understand that older people come from a different place and time.
Young was born in California in 1933, six years before Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath. (In a later book, Steinbeck quaintly described field work as “the wet-back business.”)
And “wetback” has several different connotations. If used toward someone like me, who’s a second-generation American living in the third largest city, then it’s clearly offensive.
But the way in which Young used the word was perhaps its most accurate. When and where Young was raised, “wetback” was used to describe how many immigrants came to work in the fields (by wading across the Rio Grande) and the nature of their work and work ethic (the pools of sweat on their backs).The contrarian nature of this argument appeals to me. He's old. It's a term from his childhood. Give him some slack. But as I wrote above, there was never anything innocuous about this phrase. It clearly designated both a racial and economic barrier that separated the hiring class from the hired class. The young Don Young could expect his youthful transgressions to be forgiven in ways the children working on his father's farm couldn't.
And it’s better than 'illegal.'”
The rest of Alamo's piece raises another irony in all this. Young is probably a lot more sympathetic and practical when it comes to immigration reform than most other Republicans.
But perhaps most important, Don Young the old man lives in the same body as Don Young the Alaskan Republican US Congressman. They are the same person. If Don Young were simply a 79 year old Alaskan, none of us would have heard about this. But he's one of the most senior Republican Congressmen, and that Don Young should not be forgiven this most recent trespass.
Listen to his first 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," Young said in the statement. "I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect."It's all about him. First he says the term was ok to use when he was growing up. "I know this term is not used the same way nowadays." That tells me he doesn't understand what the term meant then or why it's still offensive today. It may have been common among his crowd, but it was always offensive. "I meant no disrespect." It doesn't matter what he meant. What matters is that he understands that it is a racial slur that is highly offensive to many of his constituents. If he understood that, such words wouldn't slip out of his mouth.
And others, including the Republican House Majority leader, didn't accept that as an apology. So he issued a second one.
"I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska," the statement said. "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."A basic point about racism is that unlike simple prejudice, it is backed up by the society's institutional structures. It doesn't matter whether there was malice in his heart or whether he intended to offend. It matters that he uttered the slur without thinking, that it was embedded in his brain, and fell easily off his tongue. And that it represents the power, backed by law and law enforcement officers, of white farmers who could gave orders to brown migrant workers. Power that continues today as the employers of undocumented workers get no punishment while their employees have their lives totally disrupted. Our laws and how they are enforced continue to make that power imbalance real. It's not simply one person's prejudice, it's prejudice supported by the law, by financial institutions, by the media, and by politicians who, until recently, could say things like this with impunity.
Racism is complex. Lots of people believe they have no malice in their hearts so their actions aren't racist. Healing Racism in Anchorage (HRA) is a group that offers workshops that walk people through the history of racism in the US in a non-accusatory way. HRA recognizes that we all are affected by the underlying racial imbalance in the US and we all carry harmful stereotypes because they are embedded in our culture. HRA helps people recognize this and let go of it. [HRA is a group I've been part of for a number of years now.]