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Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week.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


    Methinks you need to touch up on your history lessons. During the days of slavery, the south was primarily Democratic, and it was the Democratic party that argued for continued slavery. Abe Lincoln, a Republican president, demolished the institution of slavery.

    It wasn't until much later that the south turned Republican. Ironically enough, the south grew angry that the Democrats seemed to be getting more progressive, and the Republicans jumped at the chance to broaden their power base there, by embracing many southern beliefs. In effect, the Republicans became Democrats, and the Democrats became Republicans.

    March 29, 2013 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  2. BrianOC7

    Can you say "Freudian Slip"?

    March 29, 2013 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  3. Penny Wright

    Since 1968 the Republican Party has been the party of racists. Nixon's so called "Southern Strategy."

    March 29, 2013 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  4. Alaskan1st

    Sorry lower 48. We just can't seem to get rid of him. He promises us free stuff.

    March 29, 2013 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  5. Pam from Iowa

    A racial slur is a racial slur! He knew it when he said it!

    March 29, 2013 12:17 pm at 12:17 pm |
  6. SkepticalOne

    Sad that the GOP members don't even realize that they said something stupid and offensive. They just look bewildered when confronted the way that senile old people often do.

    March 29, 2013 12:21 pm at 12:21 pm |
  7. its_twu

    Typical for the Republican Party, they should not even bother running for office in 2016.

    March 29, 2013 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  8. sc

    The racist machine has been gined up by the republican party, it has been and still is there favorite weapon of mass people division. Ultimately it apears that the only entity powerful enough to change there path of destruction is the almighty "FOX NEWS".

    March 29, 2013 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  9. James Bunker

    I'm so excited to see what the Party of Inclusion has to say in 2016!

    March 29, 2013 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  10. Outreach

    By golly, the Republicans are sure making headway in their "outreach" to Hispanics and Latinos for the next election aren't they! In fact they are "reaching out" so effectively that the ones who are going to surely reap their votes en masse are the Democrats in the next election. No doubt about that at all!

    March 29, 2013 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  11. What

    Who cares?

    Why dose he even have anything to say about it?
    Alaska? Come on....

    March 29, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  12. up1652

    Mexico is not a race. It's a nation. It may disparage Mexicans on a national basis but not race.

    March 29, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  13. sf

    This a hole is 79 years old..for him to try and back pedal on this comment by saying it's something "he grew up" saying/knowing is a ridiculous defense!...then again, he's a republican...

    March 29, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  14. Kenai peninsula

    I don't know is CNN purposefully did this but the commercial before the video was for Alzheimer's disease which I found to be spot on. I am from Alaska and let me assure you that most Alaskan are not the extreme right that everyone thinks. We are 48th out of 50 for most religious state, have a socialized oil industry, and support of medical marijuana. If it was not for foreigners from Texas living in our state we would vote demo rate everytime

    March 29, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  15. Loathstheright

    He's a Republican and he just is doing what Republicans do....r4cism, b!gotry, and just generally disgusting behavior. It's what these people actually think...and they only say they are sorry when they are caught.

    March 29, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  16. Susan

    I am not defending the guy, but I do sympathize. When I worked for the government two decades ago, my supervisor called all of us rookies by that same term. It was only a few years later when I used the term in casual conversation that I learned that it was a slur–and jaws dropped. I think that something is only a racially charged word when both the speaker intends malice by using it AND it offends the listener. I don't think he used it with malice.

    March 29, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  17. Steve

    Well, you have to forgive him his slip of the tongue...he was in a hurry to catch a beer with his friend, Ben Franklin.

    March 29, 2013 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  18. logikflux

    I'm sure this probably isn't a problem for him in Alaska, but he looks bad as a representative for the GOP. The GOP needs to do something to change their image, and this is not it.

    March 29, 2013 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  19. Dave

    "I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect." Actually Congressman, the term is used in exactly the same derogatory way to demean and show disrespect for the Latino people. To have you assert that it is used today in a different way or to mean something different is a feeble excuse to cover up your true prejudicial feelings for the Latino people. This makes one wonder how you feel about other people. You are a fine example of a Congressional member who has been in place way too long. It is time for you to move on and let someone take your place who really represents all the people and not a select.

    March 29, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  20. Pete The Meat

    In Other news, Water is wet.

    March 29, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  21. Michael Siever

    @Alaskan1st: He promises you guys free stuff? But, that's asinine! Isn't that supposed to be the Democrats' philosophy?

    March 29, 2013 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
  22. Joeyboy

    Father had a ranch. employed 50 to 60 workers.
    Were they paid minimum wage?

    March 29, 2013 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  23. veritas

    nuclear mike, Alaskans "support themselves" by being the top welfare state. Alaska receives more money from the federal government than any other state.

    March 29, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  24. RCM

    This is so socking, a Republican saying something like that.

    March 29, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  25. DrJStrangepork

    The term was used as a slur when he was kid and is still used as a slur today. The only thing that changed is that people are a little more sensitive about it (for good and/or bad). It is guys like this that make Priebus nose-bridge-grab. To add to it... this guy gives an excuse that "i was raised calling people names... so i get it honest." Wow...

    March 29, 2013 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
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