On Rep. Don Young's "Wetbacks" Comment

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 29 2013 11:17 AM


Rep. Don Young (R-AK) in 2006.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Alaska Rep. Don Young, who's been in Congress for most of his 79 years on earth,* said something that a younger man never would. Young grew up in a Steinbeckian California, and he remembered it (in a friendly radio interview) this way.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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

Like I said, he's lived a little. He used a term that whites bandied about 50 years ago, as "Operation Wetback" cleared illegal immigrants from the border. There's some overlap between this and a flub like Harry Reid's, his comment (revealed in Game Change) that Barack Obama would be helped by his lack of a "negro dialect." Not total overlap! Latinos never called themselves "wetbacks." But it's closer to Reid than to Dave Agema's Facebook post, a premeditated lecture on "filthy" homosexuality.


And yet it's getting treated just like that Agema gaffe. Texas Sen. John Cornyn kicked off the party with this slow jam:

“Migrant workers come to America looking for opportunity and a way to provide a better life for their families,” Cornyn said in a statement. “They do not come to this country 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.”

Of course they don't, but is this the best way to say it? I propose a catch-all system that would allow politicians (especially those who share the offending member's party) to issue their denunciations in one place. Far too much effort is needed to collate the tweets, TV appearances, and press releases of these right-thinkers. Put up a Tumblr and allow them to log in to create a usable record of who's Rejecting and Denouncing today. Or maybe use the Change.org code.

*Elected in a 1973 special election.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 


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