In Primetime, Why the "Stupid Mexican Standoff?"

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Oh no she didn’t. On Tuesday night’s edition of MSNBC’s “The Last Word,” Lawrence O’Donnell’s panel was engaged in a discussion about the possibility of a looming government shutdown. That’s when Catherine Rampell, opinion writer for The Washington Post, weighed in by saying, “Some of them (House Republicans) want the tax cuts to be bigger, some of them think the tax cuts are too expensive already, so there is this sort of like stupid Mexican standoff happening here.” She went on to elaborate about the current abysmal state of Republican leadership, and neither the host nor the panel had any reaction to this phrase.

But the phrase “stupid Mexican standoff” did not pass unnoticed on social media. On Twitter, one user wrote “Trump literally made it easy for people to blurt out racial jabs without even thinking two seconds about it.” Another viewer tweeted to Rampell, “Find another way to criticize ignorance without using a nationality as a derogatory term.”

Though it was a comment made in passing, Rampell’s words still matter. At a time when Latinos are under siege from an administration that regards Hispanics with a disquieting mix of indifference and hostility, she might have chosen her words more carefully. Rampell is a gifted writer and probably a lovely person, but referring to something as a “stupid Mexican standoff” on national TV was unfortunate.

To those who may not be familiar with the term, a “Mexican standoff” refers to a situation where two parties continue to act despite the certainly of a negative outcome for both. Think of two speeding cars headed directly at each other, with neither driver giving in and turning away. It is an outdated expression, presumably inspired by the idea that Latinos are so stereotypically hot-headed and irrational that they will go through with a disastrous decision without any regard for reason or sense. It is not an expression that should be brought back into everyday vernacular. And Rampell’s putting the word “stupid” next to “Mexican” was a definite goof.

Rampell did not help matters by tweeting back at her social media critics: “This is a term referring to an impasse or deadlock. Also a cinematic trope,” she noted, adding links to the definition of “Mexican standoff” from Merriam Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary. However, citing the dictionary is no defense. The N-word, and words like “spic” and “chink” are also in those dictionaries, and that doesn’t make it appropriate for people to use them. Why couldn’t Rampell just apologize and move on?

Rampell also tweeted at another viewer that (she’s) “not afraid to mention a “Spanish opening” in front of Spaniards or “French-kissing” in front of French people. Not all terms that have a nationality in them are racist.” She’s right. Still, even the dictionary definitions of “Mexican standoff” suggest that there is nothing positive about the term. Replace the word “Mexican” with “Jewish” and see if that doesn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth.

These are fraught times for many Latinos and other people of color. Our president tosses around words like “illegals” when referring to undocumented people and thinks Mexicans are “rapists” and criminals. Schools have reported an increase in anti-Latino bullying in the Trump era. Thirty-seven percent of Latinos, according to a new NPR poll, report that they have personally experienced racial or ethnic slurs. So while expressions such as a “stupid Mexican standoff” may not seem like a big deal to Rampell, her words do have an impact. To make matters worse, Latinos are often not included in cable news discussions to call out such unintended racial biases.

Sure, Rampell likely meant no harm or malice with her comment. She writes thoughtful columns on economics, public policy, and politics and culture, and “The Last Word” is generally an arena for solid analysis and commentary (Disclosure: I have appeared on this program). Yet Rampell’s use of “stupid Mexican standoff” would have been just as offensive coming from a raging bigot. We all carry inherent biases within us, and it’s important to check ourselves when necessary. Besides, a writer like Rampell could no doubt come up with many other, less objectionable ways to describe the Republican chaos in Washington. Without meaning to, she nonetheless insulted Mexicans and Mexican-Americans – and that’s not cool.

Rampell erred in equating political dysfunction with a “stupid Mexican standoff.” Derogatory ethnic expressions really do not belong in civil discourse, let alone on television.

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