Rep. Don Young Is Sorry You Didn't Say 'Wetback' as Much as Him Back in the Day

The Atlantic Wire

Old Congressman Donald Young has half-apologized for using the term "wetback" to describe Latino migrant workers in a radio interview Tuesday, insisting that he knows "that this term is not used in the same way nowadays"—as if the term wasn't always considered a slur. Young, a Republican who represents Alaska and is the sixth most senior member of the House of Representatives, said in a radio interview Tuesday:

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.

Oh, boy. Obviously, "wetback" is a term you're not supposed to use for its connotations about people of Mexican descent. Merriam-Webster says the term was first used in 1929 to describe Mexican and Central American immigrants who people thought crossed into southern border of the United States illegally, by way of the Rio Grande. It's taken Donald Young 85 years to still not understand the problem with it, apparently.

After a backlash, Young <strike>apologized</strike> issued the following statement overnight, saying that he meant "no disrespect":

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.

Oh, boy. About those "days growing up"—well, Young is pretty old, and he is using as his defense a time when even the government said some pretty borderline racist things. In 1954, when Young would have been around 21 years old, the U.S. created Operation Wetback, an Immigration and Nationalization Service project aimed at curbing illegal immigrants, which targeted Mexicans in particular. "The agents used a wide brush in their criteria for interrogating potential aliens. They adopted the practice of stopping 'Mexican-looking' citizens on the street and asking for identification," explains PBS. None of that history makes the term "wetback" any less racist. 

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