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Not the Speech Cruz Bustamante Hoped to Deliver

It wasn’t exactly the way Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante wanted to resurface into the limelight: speaking at a Black History Month dinner and saying the n-word.

It was inadvertent, to be sure. But very embarrassing. And potentially a career-ender.

“I’ve had better weeks,” notes Bustamante, 48, the first California Latino elected to statewide office in 128 years, and the first Latino Assembly speaker ever. A grandson of immigrants and onetime San Joaquin Valley field hand.

“Man, it’s been painful.”

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There has never seemed to be a bigoted breath in Bustamante’s body. Indeed, he has used his office to advance racial harmony. He created the Commission for One California to promote tolerance among ethnic groups and races. As a UC regent, he has urged the university to repeal its policy against affirmative action. He has lobbied TV networks for more diversity.

Two years ago--the last time he drew wide news coverage--Bustamante attacked Gov. Gray Davis for not driving a stake through Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative. For that, he paid a price; Davis has pretty much shunned him.

Yet, despite all this, when Bustamante addressed a Coalition of Black Trade Unionists near Oakland, recounting the achievements of African American labor heroes, he muttered a racial epithet that is arguably the most taboo word in America.

What was that all about?

“I just stumbled,” he says. “I’m reading a speech. . . . I don’t know exactly what happened.”

*

Bustamante was reading a treacherous paragraph that probably should never have been written--at least written to read:

Those are the seeds that formed the black labor movement that over the years has led to establishment of the American Negro Labor Committee in 1925--the National Negro Congress in 1936--the National Negro Labor Council in 1951 and the National Negro American Labor Council in 1960.

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Last week, Bustamante picked a copy of the speech off his desk top and pointed to the verbal minefield. He recalled being uptight, going in, about all the references to “colored” and “Negro” because “I didn’t grow up at a time when people were called ‘colored’ or ‘Negro.’ ”

“Right in here someplace. I think it was ‘the National Negro Labor Council.’ . . . There was like this garbling of words that sounded derogatory and I’m thinking, ‘What happened here?’ And I’m continuing to read the speech while having a second conversation with myself. And I look into the audience and there’s this woman and I see a little bit of surprise. . . .”

Some walked out, although Bustamante says he never noticed. He finished the speech, then apologized “if you heard what I think I heard.”

That was Feb. 9 and Bustamante has been apologizing ever since--calling every black leader he can: U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, L.A. Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, legislators, preachers. . . . “They’ve been very gracious,” he says.

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Others, he adds, “are trying to find some theory--that it’s some latent thing. I’ve agonized over it. I’ve prayed over it. Is there really something back there? There’s nothing. I wasn’t raised that way. I stumbled. I mispronounced a word.”

*

You do have to wonder whether there’s a double standard. What if a Republican politician had mouthed such a garble? Would Democrats--especially minorities--be so gracious? Probably not.

Is too much made of the word? “No,” Bustamante says. “The word has been used to denigrate people--and used in the worst way possible during part of our history. It shouldn’t be used by anybody.”

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Including by African Americans, he says. Many blacks agree.

“There are a growing number of African Americans who refuse to use that word,” says Assemblyman Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), who’s black. “It’s hurtful and spiteful. I have to catch myself from time to time.”

Assemblyman Rod Wright (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, thinks “Cruz overreacted and it caused people to overreact. He slipped. He doesn’t need to do the apology circuit, going around to every black brother he can find. . . .

“If you keep living, you’ll misspeak. People need to separate a genuinely intended racial slur--a joke or whatever--from a misspoken word.”

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An ambitious politician, however, can’t take the chance--can’t lay back and just hope the flap goes away. He must explain himself before some adversary does.

The relearned lesson: Any human can stumble. We need to be more careful.

This is not a career-ender. If Bustamante never climbs higher, it won’t be because one night he tripped on a pothole paragraph.


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