Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.
(CNN) -- In a recent interview on Ketchikan Public Radio in Alaska, Rep. Don Young, the state's only congressman, offered this unhelpful tidbit:
"My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wet---- to pick tomatoes. It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It's all done by machine."
There it is -- the equivalent of what Groucho Marx used to call "the secret word." It's a word that is so offensive that I won't say or write it in the long form -- although many people do so freely, which is a problem.
Just as Americans have been conditioned to refer to the "n-word" as a sanitized alternative to the filthy and hurtful long-form version, so we too should start referring to the "w-word" when describing that ethnic slur used to describe Mexican immigrants who came here, shall we say, without proper documents.
I started this crusade in April 2007 with a column for CNN.com. In it, I pointed out that the w-word is used with reckless abandon by right-wing cable talk show hosts but also left-wing journalists and celebrities. I couldn't imagine these folks using the long form of the n-word even if they were merely repeating what someone else had said. Yet they did not hesitate to use the w-word.
This tells us at least two things.
One, for many Americans, the w-word isn't as ugly or offensive as the n-word.
And two, in the minds of the uninformed, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the Southwest don't have the same legacy of racism, discrimination and mistreatment that affected African-Americans.
The experiences aren't identical, of course. But given that Mexicans in states such as California, Arizona and Texas endured Jim Crow-style segregation, job discrimination, inferior public schools, lynchings and hate crimes and repression by racist law enforcement organizations, there are similarities.
Liberals couldn't wait to pounce on Young's remarks, spreading the word (literally) and making sure the media knew that -- gasp! -- a Republican congressman had referred to Mexican immigrants using the w-word. For Democrats, who are used to getting Hispanic votes without having to earn them and want to keep it that way by pointing out how bad Republicans are, it was like Christmas in springtime.
It didn't help the GOP that Young was clueless about what he done wrong. After the first round of criticism, the lawmaker tried to brush off the controversy by saying only that he had "used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California" and that he "meant no disrespect."
That's funny. I grew up around farms in Central California. And, I can tell you, that term is all about disrespect.
After fellow Republicans blasted Young for his comments and demanded that he apologize, the congressman swallowed his pride. In a statement, Young wrote: "I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska. 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."
If Young's comments did shift the focus, it wasn't for long.
Over the weekend, business groups and organized labor signaled a major breakthrough on the road to comprehensive immigration reform when they announced they had finally struck a deal on guest worker visas, a major obstacle. All that remains now is for the Senate's "Gang of Eight" to unveil their bipartisan legislation by their April 8 deadline.
I'm glad to see Republicans jumped on Young for his comments. But where is this outrage when other GOP lawmakers flirt with ethnic demagoguery?
And what about Democrats? They were in such a hurry to condemn Young for using the w-word that they missed the fact that they were repeating the word over and over again, which suggests either that they're tone deaf or that they weren't as offended as they pretended to be.
What we learn is that while leadership on matters of race and ethnicity is hard to find in either party, political opportunism is alive and well.
Let's face it. Americans are not good when it comes to condemning the loaded language of race and ethnicity. We're not careful. We're not consistent. And we're not sincere. It's part of an overall breakdown in civility in our society and how dismissive we have become of anyone who raises concern. We're too mean, too childish, too petty and too personal.
Just look at the shameful way that MSNBC commentator Toure Neblett recently lit into Dr. Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon and black conservative who has been critical of President Barack Obama. Toure all but called Carson an Uncle Tom, insisting that this accomplished individual who spoke his mind was Republicans' token "black friend" because he helps white people "assuage their guilt."
It's never a good idea for one person of color to assess the authenticity of another -- especially if it's just for ratings.
Carson likewise stepped in it when he offered his opinion on gay marriage by drawing comparisons that were harsh and inappropriate.
During a recent interview on Fox News Channel, he said this: "Well, my thoughts are that marriage is between a man and a woman. It's a well-established, fundamental pillar of society and no group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality. It doesn't matter what they are. They don't get to change the definition."
Insisting that marriage be defined in a certain way is fine. Equating same-sex marriage with behavior that society has declared deviant and criminal is not.
It turns out that elected officials aren't the only ones who sometimes cross the line with their words and should apologize for it.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.