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Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week.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. P H

    "Wetback" may be considered an ethnic slur but it isn't a racial slur. It's strange the four people that supposedly collaborated on this story didn't pick up on that.

    March 29, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  2. realoldguy

    Of course nice white people can't be racists! They're the nicest folks you could ever hope to know. They're just... too... too darn nice!

    March 29, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  3. Betsy

    I grew up hearing a lot of terms and phases, HOWEVER, when we do grow up, somehow, we know what is right or wrong. ( or at least we are supposed to ). We then know to take it out of our vocabulary. This man said what he thinks and what he says privately all the time.

    March 29, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  4. Lillian Bova

    The GOP cracks me up!! They all get together and say crap like "we need to be more inclusive" and they're correct, you can't shun 60% of the population and expect to be elected. But they say these things, yet CONTINUE to DO things to shun people....I.E. whose defending the DOMA? GOP lawyers. Who is pushing against gun laws that 92% of Americans agree with... GOP congress. Who is presenting budget after budget proposal that benefits the top 10% of this country that control 45% of the country's wealth..... GOP members of congress.

    According to the Census, by 2020 white males will be the minority in this country. If the GOP expects to survive as a legitimate party past 2020, they're going to either have to get their old white men on board with the rest of the country or get them out.

    Don't just say you want to be more inclusive, BE more inclusive

    March 29, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  5. PastySkins

    Pasty skinned GOP'ers are shooting themselves in the foot constantly lol

    March 29, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |

    Why are we surprised? Typical Republican behavior. The so called conservatives....dont want change, these are the same people that fought the abolitionist during slavery...leave it to them, they we would still have slavery.

    March 29, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  7. The Real Tom Paine

    -nuclear mike

    Political correctness is now the Liberal's "high capacity magazine" loaded with all the kick-names, abbreviated terms, past terminologies, be called "slurs" as if the word carried the HIV virus like a 30 round mag.

    Read history, learn that the past makes today happen and Alaska is the last frontier where distance keeps the Federal government’s intrusions to a minimum and the citizens of Alaska can support themselves without the lower 48'ers & Hawaii's help...Alaska should be a tax-free zone completely!!!

    Call'em as you see'em Alaskan's!!! This from a red-neck who enjoys being slurred!!! And I sleep with a native Alaskan every night so yeah Buddy…Alaskans are free spirits of the past for America!
    Why should you be tax-free, when you take almost $2 for ever $1 you send back? You would have nothing if it weren't for the Feds puring money into the state, money that comes from liberal blue states. I hate subsidizing a culture of lazy righties who always want something for nothing, but it comes with their culture of denial.

    March 29, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  8. Did Not Care

    There is never an excuse for stupidity unless of course you don't feel what you're saying is stupid and enjoy saying it which does not make it right and actually speaks volumes for you. Yet for an elected U.S. Representative to use that term knowing there are many people in this country which he represents who highly resent it due to its bigoted nature is something he should have not done but then again as a Conservative it appears he simply didn't care.

    March 29, 2013 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  9. sftommy

    The GOP's outreach to minorities campaign continues.

    March 29, 2013 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  10. Bill D

    I can understand where he is coming from. When I grew up in the 60's, early 70's, the term Neegrow (SP) was commonly used. It was used in television shows, news broadcasts, etc. It was just another word. So if it slips out of my mouth today, I mean no offense by it. For an analogy, let's say the word "dinner" was no longer socially accepted, and instead you were to call it "supper". It would be very easy to accidently let "dinner" slip out once in a while.

    March 29, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  11. Patrish

    Poor judgement on his part, but I was raised in Calif (only 9 years younger than him), and, yes that was a term that was used frequently. Never thought about it until now.

    March 29, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  12. Dark Drew

    "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."

    B/S He KNEW it was a racist term, He's been called on it, and now he's backpedaling. Is this the kind of person you want representing you?

    March 29, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  13. Barry Gonzales

    The media in America goes out of their way to make their own citizens look like wretched nincompoops. This type of reporting should never make it to the front page of an internet news page. Apparently there is nothing better to cover in America than an old man using slurs. I am of Mexican dissent. I don't care what he says. Let's not make this a bigger issue than it is...merely a word to describe a person. Who cares, CNN Get over it. Grow some thicker skin.

    March 29, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  14. stewart

    time for him to go far far far away. if the house had any guts they would toss him out today. oh forget that it is run by a bunch who think just like him

    March 29, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  15. Cruddy

    Its funny to see the verbal gymnastics people go through to try and justify using a racial slur. Its racist and there are no 2 ways about it. Admit it, apologize and move on. A real man/woman can admit that.

    March 29, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  16. SoSad

    As a American/Mexican, I'm not surprised that OLD WHITE MEN representing the Republican party talk this way. Let's see what Rubio say's, probably nothing. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, LOL.

    Don't take them seriously, they can't help it! Just laugh it off.

    March 29, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  17. Steve R

    The only good news in all these absurd utterings that spew from the mouths of the GOP , is that most are uttered by old white men who are rapidly becoming extinct. Sooner or later the Party will be taken back by younger , saner people who may differ on certain issues but are not haters and bigots like we see today.

    March 29, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  18. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    I believe he meant no disrespect from the term... but I also believe he had no respect for them regardless of his word choices

    March 29, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  19. yogi

    "I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect."
    Of course he meant to disrespect, this is what Republicans are so good at: You apologize, after you have done the damage. They are a classless bunch.

    March 29, 2013 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  20. Little Doubt

    There can be little doubt that if the n-word had been used by this guy African-Americans would be completely outraged and calling for his immediate ouster!

    March 29, 2013 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  21. David

    Now we're concerned about offending people who break into the country......Liberals will be the death of the nation

    March 29, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  22. Sandra

    I grew up in the 50's and remember some of them. Wetbacks has always been a demeaning term for hispanics. Many people in Texas used it. I would have been punished. I was taught from the gitgo that was not tolerated in our household. I had great liberal parents.

    March 29, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  23. Carol

    A slip of the tongue from deeply implanted racism....Obviously reflects old, deep seated prejudice that, despite his obvious current enlightened state, somehow was allowed to slip by...Come on, give me a break!!! And this guy has served 21 terms! Seems pretty representative of the Republican Party...

    March 29, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  24. bearced

    You can't walk that one back! Words have meaning, use them wisely.

    March 29, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  25. EH

    Just plain ignorant that he thought the comment was a legitimate statement to make and explanation to offer. Anyone who believes otherwise is likely equally ignorant.

    March 29, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
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