Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, set off a brief political storm when he referred to Latino ranch workers as “wetbacks” during an interview last Thursday on a Ketchikan radio station.
Young’s comment drew a chorus of protests even from within his own party, according to press accounts. House Speaker John Boehner called it offensive and beneath the dignity of his office, saying it “warrants an immediate apology.”
In apologizing the next day, Young explained that the questionable term was used without reservation when he was a boy growing up in Central California. Dismissing the matter, he seemed to suggest this was a small matter: “I’m sorry that this has shifted our focus away from comprehensive immigration reform.”
But comprehensive immigration reform is not the other bookend of his remark. The seeming apology does not change things. In fact, it is at the very heart of the matter. An apology is not about withdrawing the tone but to atone.
Offensive remarks, gaffes, slurs and jokes in a political context like this give license to bad behavior, like that of Mitt Romney calling for self-deportation during the 2012 election campaign or Herman Cain “joking” about electrified fences. Fortunately, these became self-inflicted wounds.
Young and others must have been sleepwalking throughout the past year to not realize the negative effect of GOP leaders’ words and the disapproval they received at the polls as a consequence.
Republicans should be careful about what they say and how they say it, so they’re not misrepresenting their views or leaving themselves open to misunderstanding – unless they do mean to say callous things about Latinos and other groups.
This crowd acts out as badly as Abbie Hoffman’s Yippies – short for Youth International Party – did in the 1960s, using provocative and inflammatory expressions. A phrase popularized at the time still holds true: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
The problem is that Republicans might not be able to solve their dilemma, might not be able to turn the corner from where they were to where they should be as a national party. Even Jeb Bush, who is no Latino antagonist, demonstrated through his immigration-policy reversal how Republicans could hit obstacles when paving a new way.
Young claimed he used the term “wetback” as a benign expression. But speakers ought not denigrate and belittle others, then claim they didn’t mean it. In this case, it makes the Republican Party seem more like a club in which noncitizens, like fraternity pledges, are fair game for hazing.
Los Angeles Times writer Robin Abcarian points out that the problem becomes viral when creeping elitism gets in the mix. She asks: If only one out of a million is a bigot, are the 999,999 justified? My question: Is a punch in the nose justified if it doesn’t happen too often?
Since their defeat at the polls, Republicans have tried to set a new tone. But Young’s bungling shows that’s not good enough. Republicans instead need to clarify their values, make them known and use words such as “respect” and “dignity” as antidotes and to disinfect the environment.
Otherwise, as columnist Charles Blow said in The New York Times: “They want to turn (Republican) Teddy Roosevelt’s famous saying on its side: Speak softly but carry a big stigma.”
The Young caper shows that beneath the longed-for nostalgic pastoral Republican political landscape, there is really a lot of methane gas.
José de la Isla is a nationally syndicated columnist for Hispanic Link and Scripps Howard news services. Email him at [email protected]