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Racism & Bigotry: Will ‘Wetback’ Slur Derail GOP’s Rebranding Efforts?

DonYoung310Crushing defeats in last year’s election left Republicans aching to reposition their political platform, but continuing cultural-competency gaffes—namely, Alaska Congressman Don Young’s recent racial slur—suggest that the GOP is far from improving its relevancy with an increasingly diverse American population.

During a recent interview with KRBD radio, Young “accidentally” used a racial slur when referring to the Latinos who used to work on his family’s farm.

“My father had a ranch. We used to hire 50 or 60 wetbacks … to pick tomatoes. You know, it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine,” said Young.

Young immediately was slammed by both the media and his fellow GOP members for the racist comment, but it wasn’t until Speaker of the House John A. Boehner demanded that Young apologize that any sign of remorse was issued. A full three days later, Young finally said: “I apologize for the insensitive term I used. …There was no malice in my heart or intent to offend; it was a poor choice of words.” Young noted it was a term used back when he was growing up and, as such, he did not consider the term’s present-day connotations.

It’s an excuse—not a heartfelt apology that conveys a sense of sincerity or mindfulness, which the GOP needs to convey.

Diversity and cultural competence have become key differentiators in political success. During the 2012 presidential race, 71 percent of Latinos voted for President Obama, and Latinos comprised 10 percent of the total electorate for the first time.

Is the GOP for Whites Only? Young’s gaffe is a classic example of yet another “we don’t get it moment,” says Mike Allen, Chief White House Correspondent for Politico. Last year, gaffes by Republican candidates such as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, along with racist voter laws, negatively impacted voter opinions. And Young’s slur “gives critics and people who are skeptical of the party a new reason to say it hasn’t changed.”

What will it take for a turnaround in the Republican Party? Jason Johnson, who debated the issue on a CNN panel, had this to say in his column on Politic365.com:

One of the problems that the Republican Party has about race issues is that the party is full of non-repentant bigots who want to treat racism like it’s an outlier and exceptional instead of the basic thought process of many, many (all too many) Americans. Earlier today I was on CNN with Amy Holmes from the Blaze (Glenn Beck TV) and she responded with the typical talking points of the GOP: “Joe Biden says racist things too,” “Other Democrats have said racist things,” etc., etc. Trying to place blame on all sides does not solve the GOP’s major electoral and reputational problem. All Republicans, white people, conservatives and Southerners are not racists. In fact, the majority of these groups are not necessarily racist. However, the GOP refuses to take responsibility for its own bad press and would rather say that the media is blowing things out of proportion, unfairly targeting its members (instead of Democrats) or that Blacks and Latinos are too sensitive. All of these outfits and fashion flips rather than cleaning up their act.

The biggest issue for Johnson? The level of comfort with which Young said “wetback,” he writes, is representative of the “casual simple ‘it’s a fact’ bigotry that is churned out every day in the halls of power, where denying someone a job, acceptance into a college or a promotion is not the result of some large diabolical plot, it’s just how large portions of white people have done things in America for years and continue to do.”

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16 Comments

  • Congressman Young may not have had “malice in his heart”, but he certainly had and has bias. The derogatory term used for Mexicans is no different than other terms that have been developed for ALL minorities. It’s meant to remind all minorities that regardless of how hard we work, how educated we are or how much we contribute to our society, we are still essentially less than whites in the United States.

    It’s not just a GOP problem, as there are many fine people in the Repulican party. The problem is the lack of acceptance, the need to feel superior and to retain a power base by any means necessary.

    • Couldn’t have said it better…I agree with everything you just stated.

    • s. anderson

      I wonder if Congressman Young would have had the good sense not to use the “N” word if his family had hired black people to work their farm back in the day. The “N” word was routinely used to describe black people. It was offensive then and still remains today. Mr. Young’s comments are a poor excuse for an apology.

    • Couldn’t have said it better.

  • As an independant, I could care less about either party’s “branding” as it has no bearing on my thought proces when choosing a candidate. What we have here is a man in a position of power that demonstrated more ignorance with his apology than with his original comments. He says it was language he used when “growing up”. Growing up doesn’t stop, and as you mature, you learn more about what’s right and wrong and then think and act accordingly. He didn’t mis-speak, this is what is in his heart. It’s what he thinks is right and for that he should no longer be afforded the position he holds.

  • A few years back I heard a philosopher and thinker propose a theory of what was underpinning the foundational angst that this country is going through right now. His analysis was that it was caused by the shift in power dynamics away from the traditional white and anglo power structures to one that definitely will be browner and in many ways quite disruptive to the status quo. The voting patterns of the last election are just the beginning. The new belief system that Hispanics and others are bringing to the table will change everything.

    So, Mr Young’s colorful language may be a reflection of this angst. Disrespect in order to disarm.

    I feel this latent disrespect and judgement all the time. The moment my name is uttered or read I am put in a box. I can see it in people’s eyes. A box that says that I am different and perhaps threatening. A box that says you are not like me.

    So, I agree with Blake. Acceptance, tolerance, humbleness are not things that we need to change in ourselves. These are things that we need to live.

  • Why is the racial slur spelled out several times in this article. I like the discussion in the article, but I am concerned with repeating this word over and over. Similar articles in the media rarely spell out the N-word.

  • Even when members of the GOP learn to talk without offending, it does not necessarily signal a change in their underying beliefs. That is why rebranding as a strategy is absurd. In order for that to be successful, there will need to be a change at the most basic level in the Republican Party — one that signals that they no longer believe that the world was designed for the white male culture to be dominant.

    • SWB – You’re demonstrating exactly why they think they need to rebrand. Somewhere along the line anyone with a conservative ideology is therefore branded as prejudiced against anything non-white male dominance. You’re perpetuating the agenda of the opposite side. We get so caught up in focusing on posturing that we lose sight of being effective. This is not a party problem, Young just happens to be a Republican. He’s ignorant regardless of his political affiliation.

  • Wow. This is something I talk about to my college students in my social cognition course. Stereotypes and racism can be so part of one’s automatic processing and way of thinking until they feel its “natural” and in the minds of racists, it is. They are told “not to say certain things” but if this is how you think, you are going to slip and say exactly what is in your heart and on your mind. Now, if you have a racist person that is interviewing you, or showing you a house, processing your loan for a car or whatever resources, that person has the power to make decisions that impact your future. The gaps that exist between the wealthy and poor, white and people of color are their by design mainly because how people think and make decisions based on their stereotypes and opinions about others. This man only spoke what he believed.

  • The GOP needs to recognize that they will continue to be judged by many among the moderate crowd on the basis of the company they keep irregardless of the percentage of that company. While it is unfortunate for the GOP that that company is part of their base, for their longer term success they need to commence distancing themselves ASAP and perhaps bite some bullets in the shorter term. Peace!

    • Luke Visconti

      They’re going to find that the racist genie is difficult to stuff back into the bottle. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • grannybunny

    In today’s hateful political climate, that slur may actually gain him votes from his hard-core party faithful. With all the inflammatory rhetoric being tossed around these days about undocumented immigrants — “[w]hat part about ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” — it’s surprising that some pandering politician has not yet proposed internment camps.

  • Actually, I am very appreciative of Young’s honesty (I heard your spit take). See, I grew up in Nashville, TN, in the late 60′s and early 70′s. One of the things I grew to appreciate was that racists would self-identify. I didn’t have to guess where they were coming from — they let me know right up front. I learned to swerve to avoid a clash and move on.

    But when I took a job in California in 1980, the racism was hidden. On my one year anniversary at a major company I worked for, I was told that I was a “token” hire to fill government mandated quotas, so they could qualify for government contracts. I was urged to “resign” so that they could hire another minority to take my place (according to sympathetic coworkers). They were cooking the minority employment books. The racist attitude was unseen, undetected, and unexpected.

    I would rather see clearly my enemy, than to squint through the fog to find them. Don’t discourage hate speech. It spotlights who they are. Instead, recognize the hate speech and respond accordingly.

    • Luke Visconti

      I agree with you. My feeling is that you should respond harshly and quickly with the right words: “bigot,” “racist,” “sexist,” “gay basher,” “ignoramus,” “dope,” “Archie Bunker.” Mincing words only confuses people. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • I worry the hidden racists. How do we know? We may not ever know what these people really feel. So what do we do about it? I think we have to be viligent and make sure we let people know in our every day behaivior and speech that we do not tollerate racism in any way. I don’t think we can change a racists thinking. But I do think we can show in a loud voice that it’s not going tolerated!

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