March 29th, 2013
08:05 AM ET
10 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."

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Young, Alaska's sole congressman, originally made the comment during a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio earlier this week.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

    Its ok. Old expressions die hard. Remember. A rose is a rose, by anyother name.

    March 29, 2013 08:10 am at 8:10 am |
  2. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California," the Republican congressman said
    Gee congr4essman, how long ago was that? Let's see, you're 79 years old so you've had AT LEAST a 70 year pass of using that derogatory term without getting busted.
    THAT's the real story behind this 'Thug's "misspeak".
    Yawn. Give me a break already with the bs excuses from these born, and bred bigots.

    March 29, 2013 08:22 am at 8:22 am |
  3. Fair is Fair

    Pretty stupid, dude... pretty damn stupid. Certainly Alaska has better to offer.

    March 29, 2013 08:30 am at 8:30 am |
  4. penguin

    That's just blubber blabber. Ethnic slur meant to facetious. The term "wetback" was popular in the 50s and 60s but even back then it was meant as a slur. It was never a term of endearment

    March 29, 2013 08:30 am at 8:30 am |
  5. fernace

    The problem w/"walking back" comments is that you can't really do it! Once you've said it, it's out there & you basically have to live w/it! I'm also not convinced by Young's "explanation"! Does he feel the same way about the N word, too!? Using terminology from the 40's & 50's is no excuse, because we all know these words are derrogatory, meant to diminish certain peoples value! He could easily have used the term "migrant workers," but chose to take it there & gave a weak explanation instead of an appology! Clarification Fail!!

    March 29, 2013 08:39 am at 8:39 am |
  6. Kurt

    When I read the headline, somehow I knew he'd turn out to be a Republican.

    March 29, 2013 08:41 am at 8:41 am |
  7. Dennis Freeman

    Typical GOP'er

    March 29, 2013 08:42 am at 8:42 am |
  8. J'Cincinnati'Redd

    Wow! Good job tea party,the Mexicans just cant wait to Hop on the republican bus for change. And the sad part is he really thinks its no big deal!

    March 29, 2013 08:43 am at 8:43 am |
  9. Tony in Maine

    Young is a dinosaur. He probably uses a particularly offensive word for Alaska native women with no clue that it's offensive.

    And those who vote for him just shrug complaints off as being more of those Sierra Club, California, long hair, Liberal PC'ers.

    March 29, 2013 08:44 am at 8:44 am |
  10. ST

    Hello sir, what about: "Think first before you lip out"? Just talking without thinking first, you end up offending people. Filtering words is the best way of avoiding regrets.

    March 29, 2013 08:52 am at 8:52 am |
  11. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    "I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect."
    But it IS being used in the same way nowadays congressman, just like the N-word and that other "endearing" term: spic.

    March 29, 2013 08:59 am at 8:59 am |
  12. foot in mouth!

    What a foolish thing to say in a time where people are offended just by the way you look at them,Geeze!

    March 29, 2013 09:04 am at 9:04 am |
  13. Typical

    Who we really should be shaking our heads at are the people of Alaska for continuing to support this person who appears to have been bred to be a bigot. 21 terms in office and his constituents continue to give him a pass. Such a beautiful state is marred by the rantings of a pompous individual, who tries to blame his lack of a filter on his pie hole on the times that he was raised in. So by his own explanation he was raised to look down upon those whose skin tone doesn't match his. Shame on you Alaska, for allowing this dinosaur to spew his rhetoric under your flag.

    March 29, 2013 09:18 am at 9:18 am |
  14. Fair is Fair

    Dominican mama 4 Obama

    "I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect."
    But it IS being used in the same way nowadays congressman, just like the N-word and that other "endearing" term: spic.
    Couldn't agree with you more, Dom Mom. Let's not leave the johnny-come-lately one off the list, either... you know, the one that makes you think of ritz or saltines?

    March 29, 2013 09:26 am at 9:26 am |
  15. tyrone byrd

    Some white males just never learn. They say the same insensitive and stupid things for years. It is ignorance or just don't care.

    March 29, 2013 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  16. Yanni

    All republican think they are still live in the 1950s America. This is not isolated case.

    March 29, 2013 09:38 am at 9:38 am |
  17. the whole world

    Evidently Alaska has chosen to live in the racist past. Is the fact that he is a bigot what gets him re-elected in AK? Racism=Ignorance.

    March 29, 2013 09:47 am at 9:47 am |
  18. Sam

    A Republican? What a shock. If the GOP doesn't change and change quickly it is destined to become smaller with every election cycle. It will continue to become older and whiter while America changes demographically. Time is not on their side.

    March 29, 2013 09:52 am at 9:52 am |
  19. Maria Rivera-Carvalho

    What makes Republicans so hopeless? They never, never learn.

    March 29, 2013 09:53 am at 9:53 am |
  20. the whole world

    Spew out some racist hate and get elected to public office in Alaska. Pathetic reflection on an otherwise beautiful state. Racism=Ignorance.

    March 29, 2013 09:55 am at 9:55 am |
  21. Randy, San Francisco

    This old angry white Republican spoke what is truly in his heart, hate and intolerance. This is concrete proof that the Republican outreach to Hispanics is only cosmetic. The Republican Party is still the party of angry old white men.

    March 29, 2013 09:56 am at 9:56 am |
  22. The Real Tom Paine

    The sad thing is that there are some who will give him a pass. Its one thing to have said racially or ethnically insensitive comments in your youth, but to throw it out when you are a public figure charged with representing everyone is inexcuseable.

    March 29, 2013 09:57 am at 9:57 am |
  23. Larry L

    Republicans really are sorry for getting caught saying exactly what they mean. It's incredible a person can serve in public office that long and not be able to train their mind to filter out racist words – even if you're a racist. You can be certain this jerk has colorful phrases for every ethnic group and uses those when he's alone with fellow bigots.

    March 29, 2013 10:03 am at 10:03 am |
  24. nothing new here

    "My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 ________ to pick tomatoes," Young said
    Since when did the words "people", "employees" or "helpers" become poltically incorrect? Since these 50-60 people were being paid for their work, although it wasn't much, at least acknowledge them for what they were – HIRED HELP. Nothing more, nothing less.
    Thank you.

    March 29, 2013 10:03 am at 10:03 am |
  25. TomNPitt

    I see where another parade just passed another old white man who makes policy decisions in the United States. These old white men from the sixties just need to be put out to pasture. There should be a mandatory retirement age for old racist coots. When you use a term that is not palatable in a restaurant of average Americans in a large ciy, not in the south – it's time for you to be forcibly removed from office.

    March 29, 2013 10:05 am at 10:05 am |
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