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Lawmaker apologizes for calling Clarence Thomas ‘Uncle Thomas’ on Twitter

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(Twitter via City Pages)

A Minnesota state representative has apologized for a tweet in which he referred to black Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as "Uncle Thomas."

Shortly after the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act was announced on Tuesday, Ryan Winkler, a Democratic lawmaker from Minnesota's 46th District, tweeted:

#SCOTUS VRA majority is four accomplices to race discrimination and one Uncle Thomas.

The tweet was subsequently deleted, and Winkler issued several apologies on Twitter, claiming he wasn't aware he had used a racial epithet.

"I did not understand 'Uncle Tom' as a racist term, and there seems to be some debate about it," Winkler wrote in response to a tweet linking to a blog post about his offensive message.

But there does not appear to be much debate. "Uncle Tom" refers to the faithful slave in Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a black who is overeager to win the approval of whites." Winkler's tweet suggested Thomas voted to gain the approval of his Caucasian counterparts.

"I didn't think it was offensive to suggest that Justice Thomas should be even more concerned about racial discrimination than colleagues," Winkler wrote on Twitter. "But if such a suggestion is offensive, I apologize."

According to Winkler's biography on the state House website, he earned a bachelor's degree in history at Harvard. He was elected in 2006.

In a statement posted to the site, Winkler added:

I was very disappointed today in the Supreme Court decision to roll back key provisions of the Voting Rights Act because I believe the Voting Rights Act is one of the most important steps our nation has taken to eliminate racial discrimination.

In expressing that disappointment on twitter, I hastily used a loaded term that is offensive to many. My words were inappropriate and I apologize. The implications of this Supreme Court decision are serious for our state and country and I regret that my comments have distracted from the serious dialogue we must have going forward to ensure racial discrimination has no place in our election system.

Winkler told Minnesota's Star Tribune he simply thought the epithet meant "turncoat."

"I intended to point out the fact that Justice Thomas had turned his back on African-American civil rights," Winkler said. "I did not intend it as a racially derogatory term and I probably reacted too hastily in using a word that is very loaded."

[Hat tip: Daily Intelligencer/City Pages]

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