March 29th, 2013
08:05 AM ET
1 year ago

Alaska Rep. Don Young walks back 'wetbacks'

(CNN) – Longtime Alaska Rep. Don Young, 79, attempted to clarify Thursday his use of the derogatory term "wetbacks" to describe immigrant workers in an interview earlier this week.

"I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California," the Republican congressman said in a statement issued to a local television station in Anchorage. "I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect."

Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week. Talking about how technology is affecting the economy, he referenced an anecdote from his family's farm in California.

"My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes," Young said. "It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It's all done by machine."

The word is widely considered an ethnic slur and generally refers to those from Mexico who come to the United States illegally by crossing the Rio Grande River.

The 21-term congressman later issued the statement, which didn't come as a full apology but sought to explain his reasoning behind using the word. The word was used by the U.S. government in the 1950s for "Operation Wetback," a massive crackdown on illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Young's comments come at a time when the Republican Party is attempting to rebrand itself and expand its outreach to various minority groups, chief among them are Latinos.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, blasted Young in a statement, saying migrant workers come to the country for work and opportunities, not 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," he continued.

GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana focused on the impact of damaging comments earlier this year, when he said at the Republican National Committee winter meeting that the GOP has "to stop being the stupid party" and should start talking "like adults."

"It's no secret we've had a number of Republicans this year damage our brands with bizarre and offensive comments," he said. "I'm here to say we've had enough of that."

– CNN's Ashley Killough, Steve Brusk, Peter Hamby and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.


Filed under: Alaska • Don Young
soundoff (274 Responses)
  1. Tootsie

    I like how your headline notes "Republican" and "racial slur" – if this had been a Democrat, would it even have made your radar screen? I doubt it.

    March 29, 2013 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  2. They grow up to wear depends

    We are born and as infants we soil our diapers, we are trained not to soil our diapers and then go many years proud of the fact we don't soil our diapers. We become old and forgetful and our children recognize that no matter how well trained we have been the last 75 years, we have forgot about our potty training, and we need depends. This is an old politician who we had trained at one time, but now he is old and he has forgotten about his training. It doesn't excuse his actions, because they still stink, it just explains his actions.

    March 29, 2013 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  3. Anonymous

    So, in the end he didn't even apologize.

    March 29, 2013 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  4. Ed the Fed

    Same ol' GOP. You can put lipstick on a pig, but at the end of the day it's still a pig!

    March 29, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  5. DM

    It's too bad he cant get along with people. Why is he hired? What does he do again? A short order cook? I wouldn't let him in the dining room.

    March 29, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  6. nothing new here

    "It's no secret we've had a number of Republicans this year damage our brands with bizarre and offensive comments," he (Jindal) said. "I'm here to say we've had enough of that."
    *****************************************
    Agree agree agree agree agree with Jindal on this one.
    Enough already – and a 21 term senator speaking this stuff. Talk about someone needing to get a life, and a job as well.

    March 29, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  7. Jim

    I say we nominate him for president.....finally someone who calls them as he sees them and doesn't flinch in fear of liberal political correctness police

    March 29, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  8. Al

    Tootsie

    Too bad you dont see the problem and the offense. If CNN would not have "caught it" i would think FOX surely would not let that slip.

    March 29, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  9. Will

    "I like how your headline notes "Republican" and "racial slur" – if this had been a Democrat, would it even have made your radar screen? I doubt it."

    They have before, and will again. If you don't like it then go back to Free Republic of Alex Jones's website.

    March 29, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  10. ericgoestoholland

    Yes, the term is no longer used in the same way it was when you were growing up. Meaning, racist slurs are no longer considered socially acceptable.

    March 29, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  11. Knucklehead

    Good luck with that "rebranding." It isn't that we don't get your message. We get it. We understand. We just don't like it. We've outgrown it. We want to move beyond it. You are in the way now. Move aside, you're holding us back.

    March 29, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  12. O.D. Onintelligence

    So now we're worried about offending illegal immigrants? Meanwhile Chris Rock can freely use racial slurs on public tv, and the media doesn't jump on that story.

    March 29, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  13. Scrape

    Not surprised in the least.

    March 29, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  14. Pal

    Why does a search for Rep. Joe Mitchell, D-Mobile come up with 0 hits on your website? Oh wait. I know why.

    March 29, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  15. Joe

    I would not expect anything less from a republician all red necks they are.

    March 29, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  16. Greg

    Man, I am tired of this politically-correct world! You people are way too sensitive! I'm glad I have more important things to do than to be outraged at every thoughtless word that somebody says.

    March 29, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  17. Smarg

    Good for the guy. A more correct term would be "Obama voter", since that is what they become and produce.

    March 29, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  18. Christopher

    Dear Tootsie. Don Young is in fact a Republican and he did use a racial slur. So what's your problem? I tell you what. Stop pointing the finger at CNN and spare the rest us your hypersensitivity to the facts.

    March 29, 2013 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  19. Michael Bellomo

    Prime example of a " old white guy" the symbol of the republican party.

    March 29, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  20. Cleavette Brown

    This guy is a nut and should leave office. Enough is Enough!

    March 29, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  21. Skarphace

    Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas - soon to be labelled a RINO.

    March 29, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  22. Patrick

    I like the dozens of posts I've seen pointing out that he used an ethnic slur instead of a racial slur. That's like the definition of splitting hairs. The fact of the matter is that this elected official made a hugely derogatory comment directed at an entire group of people (Latinos) and will be hung by his thumbs politically for it.

    Also if something like this was said by a Democrat the reaction would be exactly the same, they just wouldn't say it, because they aren't racist morons, and if they are they're at least smart enough to keep their mouths shut about it. The party of stupid indeed Gov. Jindal.

    March 29, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  23. ken2112

    As much as I would love to nail the Republicans for this, I can't because this isn't a party thing, its a old person thing. I know many older registered Democrats that talk the same way. It's the way these 70s + people were raised. However, I would think somebody in congress would be smarter than to use derogatory terms like that.

    March 29, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  24. clarke

    it is time for him to retire. I am not against age in any way, because I have many years behind me and not many in front of me. There just comes a time when we need the youth to take over, with new idea's., open minds and energy. I understand some want to hang on, but they hang on to the wrong decades, "back in the day". Things have changed faster than we can keep up. I just feel we need youth behind our country. I understand that with age comes wisdom, but sometimes not so much. IMHO

    March 29, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  25. sam

    Tootsie. Life's too short to be so butthurt.

    March 29, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
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