Latina politician's racial remark a lesson

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Story highlights

  • Raul Reyes: Senate candidate Loretta Sanchez heard making cell phone '"joke" about Native Americans. Not funny. She apologized
  • He says ethnic minorities can be just as insensitive as others. Sanchez should have known better. Latinos must call out bigotry

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Oh no she didn't. Over the weekend, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-California, landed in hot water when she used a stereotypical "war cry" to refer to Native Americans. Speaking at a California Democratic Party convention in Anaheim, Sanchez was attempting to draw a distinction between Native Americans and Indian-Americans. "I'm going to his office," she said, referring to a supporter, "thinking I'm going to meet with a woo-woo-woo-woo, right? 'Cause he said 'Indian-American."

Raul A. Reyes
The ad-libbed remark was captured on cell phone video and quickly went viral. After initially dodging reporters who questioned her about the comment, Sanchez apologized late Sunday afternoon.
This gaffe reminds us of a few uncomfortable truths: Members of minority groups can be just as insensitive as others when it comes to race and ethnicity -- and this goes for Democrats as well as Republicans. We Latinos need to be just as vigilant about calling out bigotry in our own community as we are about decrying it in others. And Sanchez simply ought to know better than to speak off-the-cuff in such a self-destructive way.
    Native Americans constitute just 1.7% of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, or about 5.2 million people. These relatively small numbers do not mean they are any less deserving of respect than, say, African-Americans or Latinos.
    The ongoing controversy over the name of the Washington Redskins shows the public is becoming more aware of what is offensive to Native Americans. But Native Americans still have a long way to go toward winning full respect from our society. Last year, an ESPN poll found that a clear majority of Americans did not want to change the name of the Washington Redskins, despite the fact that "Redskins" is a dictionary-defined slur.
    In 2012, supporters of then-Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts made "tomahawk chops" at rallies to taunt Elizabeth Warren for her Native American heritage. Sanchez's casual mocking of Native Americans only plays into this misguided notion that it is acceptable to make a joke of Native American identity.
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    Sanchez is certainly not the first Hispanic to make offensive remarks about other racial or ethnic groups. In March, longtime Univision personality Rodner Figueroa was rightfully fired for making a racist comment about Michelle Obama on air. Like Sanchez, he, too, was apparently making an attempt at humor. Instead they both offended others and humiliated themselves.
    Given that she is running for office in one of the most diverse states in the nation, Sanchez's remark shows especially poor judgment. Yet this is not her first brush with self-inflicted controversy. In a 2010 interview on Spanish-language TV, she stated that, "the Vietnamese are after my seat" (a reference to her Vietnamese-American political opponent at the time). During the 2000 Democratic National Convention, she scheduled a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion, only to move it later when fellow Democrats objected to what one news report called "the potentially sexist scenery." With this latest firestorm, Sanchez is opening herself to criticism that she is not senator material.
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    That is unfortunate, because she has impressive credentials. She is the first Latina elected to Congress from Orange County, California. She has championed the rights of immigrants, working women and military families. Now these accomplishments have been overshadowed by a few seconds of thoughtlessness.
    That Sanchez was speaking informally doesn't make it alright. Consider that her audience, many of whom were Indian-Americans, seemed to sense right away that her comments were ill-advised. Or that in 2006, then-Sen. George Allen, R-Virginia, saw his bid for re-election collapse in part due to the outrage over his use of a racist slur in public.
    As an elected official, Sanchez should be held to a higher standard of behavior than others. Besides, as a politician in our digital age, she should recognize that nearly all her public remarks will likely be recorded and disseminated via the press and social media.
    Loretta Sanchez has unwittingly provided her fellow politicians and public figures with two important reminders: All Americans deserve respect. And racism and bigotry are not acceptable -- no matter what their source.