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Take talk of food racism with grain of salt

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • Navarrette is asked if food racism is something we have to worry about
  • Navarrette says racism should be judged on a scale from 1 to 10
  • Broadcaster refers to Latino driver as "out having a taco"
  • On that scale, Navarrette gives Bob Griese's taco comment a 4

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to Read his column here.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- This week, I was on a talk radio show when the host -- a white male conservative (what are the odds?) -- asked me if Americans are so sensitive that we now have to worry about "food racism."

When I first heard the phrase, I thought he was talking about the time that Hillary Clinton, during the Democratic primary, went looking for Latino votes in a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas, Nevada. Trying to explain to her mostly Mexican-American audience that Americans' concerns are intertwined, Clinton wound up showing everyone that her knowledge of Latino issues is a side order short of a combination plate when she said condescendingly:

"We treat these problems as if one is guacamole and one is chips, when ... they both go together."

Gulp! I remember thinking at the time: "Ay gracias, Señora Clinton. I have difficulty with challenging political issues, but now you're speaking my language. Come on, donkey!"

Instead, the radio host was talking about the latest tempest -- a taco in a teapot. One of the most recent skirmishes in the culture wars is about a Latino race car driver and a TV broadcaster who spun out and hit the wall after telling a lame joke that some are calling racist.

ESPN broadcaster Bob Griese has been suspended for one week for a stereotypical crack he made about NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya. During a recent ESPN broadcast, a graphic appeared listing the top drivers in a NASCAR competition. When fellow analyst Chris Spielman asked where was Montoya, Griese replied he was "out having a taco."

Griese has twice apologized on air for the remark, which -- according to ESPN -- he now realizes was "inappropriate." Montoya, who is Colombian, has taken the high road. Asked about the comment, the driver said: "Somebody mentioned it to me. I don't really care to tell you the truth. Yeah, I don't. I could say that I spent the last three hours eating tacos, but I was actually driving a car."

OK, this isn't the worst slight. Yes, it's true that one thing that bothers many Latinos is the ignorance. News flash: Not all 47 million Latinos in the United States can trace their origins to Mexico, and many people from Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, El Salvador and other Latin American countries flat-out resent being lumped together with Mexicans just because some non-Latinos don't care enough to do their homework and make the distinction.

But if you ranked a bunch of racist acts from 1 to 10, with 1 being the most harmless and 10 being the worst, Sheriff Joe Arpaio rounding up Mexicans in Arizona might be a nine. What you hear from cable demagogues could be an eight. The New Mexico innkeeper who fired workers for not anglicizing their names would be a seven. Griese's comments would be closer to a four.

So why suspend him? Two reasons: money and memory.

First, about money, ESPN is owned by The Walt Disney Co. and Latinos spend $800 billion a year. Eager for a piece, Mickey Mouse wants Latino consumers to know: "Se habla Español." So Griese had to be put in time out.

Next, about memory, the "taco" controversy brings to mind one of the most notorious racial flubs in the recent history of professional sports and one that was much uglier.

In April 1997, at the Masters Golf Tournament, after shooting a pitiful 78 that tied him for 34th in the final standings, professional golfer Fuzzy Zoeller assessed the game of the young man who came in first: 21-year-old Tiger Woods, who became the first African-American to win a major tournament.

Referring to the Masters' Champions Dinner where the menu is set by the previous year's winner, Zoeller said about Woods: "That little boy is driving well and he's putting well. He's doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not [to] serve fried chicken next year. Got it?" Zoeller smiled, snapped his fingers, and walked away. Then he turned his head and yelled over his shoulder, "or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve."

Woods, whose mother is Asian-American and whose father was African-American, calls himself: "Cablanasian."

Zoeller obviously saw Woods in simpler terms. Insisting his comments were "not intended to be racially derogatory," the golfer later apologized "for the fact that they were misconstrued in that fashion."

Fried chicken and collard greens, huh? Now that's what I call food racism.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.