March 29th, 2013
08:05 AM ET
5 years 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Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week.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. It's me in Chi-town

    I think it's wrong to generalize the comment to REPUBLICS only. There are democrats that use such terminology. This is an individual's problem and not a party-wide problem. My point is that as a minority, I don't want democrats to carry the flag of morality and throw stones. Some people are just stupid in their thinking...that's the beauty of living in this beautiful country. We accept everyone...even the stupid ones.

    March 29, 2013 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  2. Jeff

    A tree is known by it's fruit.

    March 29, 2013 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  3. Nolan

    I find it amusing that this story is posted on CNN, but the Alabama Congressman that attacked a white man's ancestry with cursing and slurs was not mentioned. People should stop using these words, but more importantly, people should ignore intolerance and ignorance. When we continue to give this type of thing a spotlight in the national media, we give it more fuel to keep going. Let's all grow up and stop crying when somebody calls us a bad name.

    March 29, 2013 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  4. Len

    Why do some Americans continue to elect these people.
    Because we are a racist nation. How do we change?
    Elect people who care about all Americans.

    March 29, 2013 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  5. Marcos

    And Republicans think they are progressive? What a joke. With this kind of mentality and continuing prejudice with their derogatory comments they will never and I mean never gain the Hispanic and Latino vote in future elections! That is a given without a doubt!

    March 29, 2013 10:30 am at 10:30 am |
  6. Lee

    He has spent 42 years in Congress representing Alaska, but grew up in California and is 79. So basically he is a carpetbagger with a vaction home in Alaska he can go to during the salmon runs. Nice.

    March 29, 2013 10:30 am at 10:30 am |
  7. Coo

    It figures, he's from Alaska! Like this stupid 79 year old senator, anyone that lived 50+ years ago was exposed to all sorts of racism and most got educated and became RESPECTFUL...apparently not in his neck of the woods. WHAT does the Alaskan cold air freeze their brains and keep them stupid?

    Good God, this is the same place they allow people to shoot female polar bears with CUBS and a host of other outrageous crap!

    March 29, 2013 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  8. Rebecca

    Sir, you're 79. You've had ample time to become a decent human being since your days growing up on the farm.

    March 29, 2013 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  9. Sam

    Whatever. A word is a word. There are bigger fish to fry than worrying about this kind of tabloid-level nonsense. Perhaps focus on the actual issue that was being discussed? Or is that too hard for your average CNN reporter?

    March 29, 2013 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  10. Albran

    he is a kind of Republican that should not be Elected anymore.....he is hurting the party more!

    March 29, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  11. JV

    He's try to put the term in the context of when he grew up. It didn't have the same hyper-sensitive taboo surrounding the word that it has today. Not unlike how the word colored has somehow evolved into being an offensive term for black people, even though its usage survives in the acronym NAACP or that people dance around it with common phrases like "people of color". But because an old person hasn't been able to flawlessly shift his vocabulary to the ever-changing PC approved lexicon of the month, everyone presumes to just KNOW exactly what's in this man's heart, and how he must feel about EVERY minority group on the planet. Give me a break.

    March 29, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  12. shawski2013

    Wonderful mind frame the GOP has!

    March 29, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  13. ufadoof

    He's just expressing the typical republican beliefs. Remember that come the midterms.

    March 29, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  14. CosmicC

    His comment cuts to the core of the matter. Such slurs are intended to dehumanize their objects. It allows people to rationalize paying them less than they would a person of their own race. All of the other impacts just support this economic goal.

    March 29, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  15. anchorite

    I'm going to give this guy a pass. I've heard people who were not racist use it from different countries or from the east coast where they didn't realize it had become a pejorative. It's not about what you call them, it's how you think about them. America in general clearly has a racism problem against Latinos, blacks, Muslims, and immigrants, but it can't be fixed by crucifying this guy over a mistake.

    March 29, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  16. shawski2013

    Wonderful mind – frame the GOP has!

    March 29, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  17. Jc

    Again, someone else in my beloved party brings it down even further. As a republican you're alway branded a bigot, no matter your character, then guys like this solidify that stereotype by being an old racist. I guess I will just have to wait for these old school haters to die off. Its sad.

    March 29, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  18. Guy



    Why is this news?... I'm so sick of it.... People need to grow a backbone and thicker skin

    Agreed. Just more evidence of the pussification of America.

    March 29, 2013 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  19. Michele

    Beyond the obvious disrespect, Young demonstrates he is caught up in dated stereotypes and unwilling to change with the times. Not someone any thinking person would want to represent them in congress. Some how the pathetic attempt at back pedaling just makes it worse

    March 29, 2013 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  20. Dave

    Oops, another Republican accidentally speaking what he actually believes. They really should learn to just not say anything at all.

    March 29, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  21. Lynda/Minnesota

    "I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California,"

    Yeah, well, I used to say many things during my days growing up also. After which, I moved away from the bigots and into the real world of diversity and treasured friendships.

    March 29, 2013 10:38 am at 10:38 am |
  22. GIUK

    He's a good Republican.

    March 29, 2013 10:38 am at 10:38 am |
  23. Bill C

    Democrats say crap like this all the time, and CNN never mentions it. CNN has abdicated any link ot journalism and is now just MSNBC light.

    March 29, 2013 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  24. In This Day and Age

    What this man who represents Alaska, Palin country, said is execrable! That word is fraught with bigotry of the worst kind!

    March 29, 2013 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  25. hartshwk

    actually sir the term is used today exactly the way it was used when you were growing up...that is why enlightened people do not use that term

    March 29, 2013 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
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