Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) is in hot water over a radio interview. (Dan Joling / Associated…)
If you're in the public eye, what can you say, and when can you say it?
We've had two examples this week of the minefield that is language in 21st century America.
First, from the world of politics, there's Rep. Don Young of Alaska, who's found himself in hot water over his use of the term "wetbacks." As my colleague Michael A. Memoli reported:
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."
Then, from the sports world, there's the case of CBS basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb. As The Times' Houston Mitchell wrote:
Gottlieb was on a panel with four African American men, and when he was introduced by host Greg Gumbel, he said, "Cream rising to the crop. I don't know why you guys asked me; I'm just here to bring diversity to the set here. Give the kind of white man's perspective on things from the point guard position."
So, oops, and oops.
But, was what Young said truly offensive? And ditto for Gottlieb?
Young's case seems pretty clear-cut: The term "wetbacks" fits in the "N-word" category. Though once commonly used, it was derogatory once, and it certainly is today. Which makes the clarification issued by Young's office -- "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" -- ring especially hollow.
"Nowadays" or in Young's apparently "good old days," “wetbacks” isn't a term of endearment, regardless of what the congressman would try to have us believe. Not in Alaska, not in California.
How about Gottlieb's comments, though? Certainly he took a different after-the-incident line than Young, saying, "It was not a smart thing to say and I apologize."
But none other than Charles Barkley, appearing with him on a broadcast Thursday, came to Gottlieb's defense, saying on the air:
"I know this has nothing to do with the game; I want to say something about Doug Gottlieb. He made a joke earlier tonight, and people are going crazy. All those idiots on Twitter, which I would never ever do. Listen, me, Kenny and Greg Anthony and Greg Gumbel did not take that personally. So all you people at home who've got no life and are talking bad about Doug Gottlieb, get a life. It's over with. It's no big deal."
So, no harm, no foul, right?
Well, not so fast. First of all, Barkley himself is no saint when it comes to racially tinged comments; for example, he once said, "You know it's going to hell when the best rapper out there is white and the best golfer is black," and also, "Man, there's nothing in the world that makes me as nervous as seeing white people dance."
So the fact Barkley wasn’t offended is, perhaps, too low a bar.
But I'm also inclined to give Gottlieb the benefit of the doubt. His comments strike me as springing from a certain locker-room mentality (he's a former college and pro basketball player), in which men tend to disparage others or themselves but everyone understands there's nothing personal in it.
That said, the locker room is one place; a national TV broadcast is quite another.
Gottlieb made a mistake. And as anyone who's endured harassment training knows, you just don't tell a potentially offensive joke at work.
You might not offend Charles Barkley, but the world's bigger than even the former "Round Mound of Rebound."
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