Speak up for change

This week, a group of senators introduced legislation meant to overhaul immigration through enhanced border security, a new guest-worker program and a citizenship path for immigrants living in the United States without legal permission.

The group is bipartisan, but most eyes are on Republicans, some of whom seemingly don't know how to talk about the subject without sounding bigoted and tone-deaf. During a March radio interview, Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young called the migrant workers on his family's California farm “wetbacks.” When Young apologized at the behest of his GOP cohorts, he tried to write the incident off as an age-old verbal tic. The term, he explained, was one he'd heard used repeatedly, and without apology, as a young boy.

Young is 79. Surely he's had a lifetime of adulthood to figure out that such a word is not acceptable. Nor is the continued marginalization of an entire class of people.

Which means that, when it comes to progress, we can't forget to look inward as well. In some ways, many of us are equally guilty when it comes to such marginalization. With family raised near Texas ranches or in California's farm-rich valley, I've heard elderly relatives use similar language. Instead of protesting, the younger members of my family usually meet such comments with a cringe, an eye-roll or an exchange of hushed whispers. We let comments slide, opting to dismiss them as the archaic thinking of people who can't be changed.

And that's not OK.

People can and do evolve. But profound change is impossible as long as one uses, unthinkingly or otherwise, a slur to describe a person or group. Profound change is impossible as long as the rest of us allow others to speak those words without consequence.