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Bluntly speaking: Rep. Young embarrassed himself and all Alaskans

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Posted: Saturday, March 30, 2013 12:00 am

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial

The problem with being known as a blunt-spoken politician is that the blunt speech can get you in trouble.

It’s happened again to Rep. Don Young, who referred to Hispanic migrant workers as “wetbacks” in an interview this week with KRBD radio in Ketchikan. He said in the interview that, when he was young, his father “used 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes” on the family’s California farm.

Rep. Young issued a statement late Thursday that fell short of an apology. Here is his statement in its entirety:

“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.

“Migrant workers play an important role in America’s workforce, and earlier in the said interview, I discussed the compassion and understanding I have for these workers and the hurdles they face in obtaining citizenship. America must once and for all tackle the issue of immigration reform.”

Use of the derogatory term shouldn’t be explained away as a generational issue. It’s not good enough to essentially say “Well, it’s not a big deal because that’s how we all described migrant workers when I was a kid.” Just because a phrase was commonly used long ago doesn’t mean it was acceptable long ago.

The initial failure by Rep. Young to recognize the necessity for an outright apology was corrected Friday with a further statement from his office.

“I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska,” the new statement reads. “There was no malice in my heart or intent to offend; it was a poor choice of words. That word, and the negative attitudes that come with it, should be left in the 20th century, and I’m sorry that this has shifted our focus away from comprehensive immigration reform.”

He’s right. There’s no place for such language and thought, especially from our elected leaders. And the congressman surely knows the sensitivity of some racial labels, having enjoyed a prosperous marriage of more than four decades to the late Lu Young, a Gwich’in Athabascan from Fort Yukon.

The Republican Party, of which Rep. Young is a member, has a well-established difficulty in attracting Hispanic voters. The 2012 national election was yet more proof of that, which is why improving the party’s standing among Hispanics has become a priority of GOP leaders.

Rep. Young may bristle at the media — as he often does — over this latest incident. But we hope his focus instead remains on what he said, for he does his legacy, his party and the state he dearly loves no good with such utterances.

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