Cruz Bustamante meant to say “Negro.” But he said something else instead, and California’s lieutenant governor has been apologizing for it ever since.
The scene was a February 2001 awards dinner sponsored by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists at a Holiday Inn in Emeryville. Bustamante was reading a speech and rattling off a list of black labor unions. When he got to one called the National Negro American Labor Council, he didn’t say “Negro.” He used a different N-word instead.
About one-quarter of the 400 people in the room left in protest, according to master of ceremonies Marshall Walker. (Other estimates suggested that fewer people walked out.)
When Bustamante finished his remarks, he knew he had done something wrong. “If you heard what I think I heard, I want you to know it wasn’t me,” he said. “It’s not the way I was raised, it’s not the way I was taught, it’s not the way I raise my children, and it’s not what’s in my heart.”
Not everybody was persuaded.
Gwendalyn Bello, event attendant: “I was appalled he would even say it as a slip,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle. “You don’t make a slip like that unless it is something you say normally. It simply shouldn’t have been said. In any context, it shouldn’t have been said.”
Shannon Reeves, president of the NAACP’s Oakland chapter: “His attempt to cover it up by calling it a ‘slip,’ is, particularly, insolent,” said Reeves in a statement. “Is this how he plans to build bridges between our communities?”
Peggy Watts, a union official also at the dinner: “When you hear it with your own ears, and hear that ring in your ears, it’s indescribable,” she told the San Jose Mercury News. “We have to hold politicians accountable for their actions, and if we don’t do that, what is our struggle for?”
Bustamante spent several days apologizing for what he said, and many liberals tried to offer him cover. Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, and Rod Wright, chairman of the legislative black caucus, defended the lieutenant governor. Wright wondered why the media was bothering to cover the story at all.
The controversy over Bustamante and the N-word was mostly forgotten within a week or two. Today it’s only commemorated in lengthy profiles of Bustamante, and then as an unfortunate “slip of the tongue.”
One question: Would the Left be so forgiving if Arnold Schwarzenegger or Tom McClintock had made a similar gaffe a few years ago? Somebody should ask Trent Lott.