Alaska Rep. Don Young rebuked over slur

Alaska Rep. Don Young, who issued a qualified apology for using the racial slur "wetbacks" in referring to Latino migrant workers.
(Dan Joling / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON - One of the House of Representatives’ longest-serving Republicans now says he meant “no disrespect” when he used the term “wetbacks” to describe migrant workers his family once employed.

His comment, which drew a strong rebuke from the House speaker, flies in the face of his party’s effort to improve outreach to minority groups.


In an interview with a local radio station Thursday, Alaska Rep. Don Young was discussing how advances in technology have reduced the need for some types of employment and referred to farming his family once did in California.

“My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,” he told KRBD. “It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”

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Young, a 40-year veteran of Congress, also told the station that former GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was correct in saying that 47% of Americans are dependent on government, according to a story posted by the station.

House Speaker John A. Boehner strongly denounced Young’s comment Friday.

“Congressman Young’s remarks were offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds. I don’t care why he said it – there’s no excuse and it warrants an immediate apology,” Boehner said.

Young’s office did issue a clarification, though not an apology, in the congressman’s name.

“During a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio this week, I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California. I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays, and I meant no disrespect,” he said.

Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas), the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called it “deeply disheartening” that a member of Congress would use “such hateful words and racial slurs.”

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“Rep. Young says that he was just using the language he was accustomed to as he grew up, but there is no excuse for ignorance. He has served alongside Hispanics in Congress since 1973, so he should know terms like ‘wetback’ have never been acceptable,” he said. “As the Republican minority outreach efforts develop, I’d advise their strategists to list ‘don’t say racial slurs like ‘wetback’’ as a bedrock for their messaging.”

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