Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) has never struck me as a particularly smart politician and is prone to committing gaffes and making awkward “Oops” statements. Well, he’s done it again only this time the objects of his derisive rhetoric were not climate scientists, environmentalists, or liberal voters and politicians. The only difference this time was the target – migrant workers. And right now immigrants appear to be every politician’s favorite cause célèbre given the drubbing Latina/o voters gave to the Republican Party in the 2012 election.
Many people – including some of his own Republican Party members – are expressing “disgust” with Young’s use of the disparaging racial slur, “Wetbacks” during a radio interview yesterday (to listen use this link here to take you to HuffPost). In the interview with KRBD-FM, Young was discussing his own experience with the hiring of farm workers: “I used to own — my father had a ranch. We used to hire 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes…You know it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”
Presente.org just issued a Press Release with an active link to a petition asking for Rep. Young’s resignation and a real apology. Arturo Carmona and the rest of the Presente team qualified the remark as “…one of the most dehumanizing comments we’ve heard from a public official in a while” and that “even with Senate and House Republican leaders condemning him, Rep. Don Young has simply issued a non-apology, claiming he ‘meant no disrespect.’”
I understand Presente.org’s disgust with Young’s statement, but I do not believe it ranks that high in the pantheon of politicians’ hate speech against Mexican-origin and other Latina/o workers. For example, during the 2010 midterm election – just as the anti-immigrant hysteria was reaching a crescendo – Pat Bertroche, a Tea Party Republican candidate for the Congress from the 3rd district of Iowa, argued that apprehended “illegal aliens” prior to being deported should have micro-chips implanted in their bodies. He offered this as a solution to re-entry and compared undocumented workers to dogs:
I think we should catch ’em, we should document ’em, make sure we know where they are and where they are going. I actually support microchipping them. I can microchip my dog so I can find it. Why can’t I microchip an illegal? That’s not a popular thing to say, but it’s a lot cheaper than building a fence they can tunnel under.
That still ranks higher on my “offensive discourse meter,” along with Republican Presidential hopeful Herman Cain’s remark about how his border fence is “…going to be 20 feet high. It’s going to have barbed wire on the top. It’s going to be electrified. And there’s going to be a sign on the other side saying, ‘It will kill you — Warning’” earlier adding that the sign would be written “in English and in Spanish.” See? They are sensitive to Latina/o concerns. Gosh, Cain even respects bilingualism!
I actually think that the criticism Young is getting from his own ranks seems like an opportunity for his colleagues to take cheap shots on their fellow Republican to earn fake cookie points with Latina/o voters. The Republicans must think Latina/o voters are stupid enough to believe that just because John Boehner is not as boneheaded as Young he actually favors policies that would protect and empower our working-class and indigenous communities. If the GOP partisans really cared about immigrant demands and needs they would stop blocking humane immigration reforms and give the undocumented workers and their families a quick and fair path to legalization and end all this talk of guest workers.
I agree with Presente.org that “racial slurs and dehumanizing terms are worse than disrespectful—they cause harm.” Words can hurt; they can break bones. Ideological discourse can fan hatred and encourage and/or rationalize behavior that leads some persons to commit hate crimes against members identified with the dehumanized group. As Presente.org notes: “We’ve seen this through an alarming rise in hate crimes against Latinos at the height of immigration reform debates[i] and in the policies that emerge from dehumanizing language like Rep. Young’s.”
There is a history to this type of language and Presente.org notes how the slur “wetback” led to the creation of Operation Wetback, a racist program in 1949 that rounded up and deported hundreds of thousands of Latino immigrants and U.S. citizens through the targeting of specifically Mexican American barrios.[ii]
That was hardly the end of the use of this term. In his recent book, State Out of the Union, Jeff Biggers notes how in the spring of 1954 the Stanford Law Review published a controversial article entitled, “Wetbacks: Can the states act to curb illegal entry.” Biggers notes how the article “aired a sentiment about states’ rights and immigration policy that hauntingly foreshadowed the SB1070 debate.”[iii]
READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: ‘Wetbacks’ redux | mexmigration: History and Politics of Mexican Immigration.