Effort to remove Tam called political tactic
Tam urged to quit committee leadership
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At least one city councilman and some angry members of the Hispanic community called yesterday for Councilman Rod Tam to step down as Council Zoning Committee chairman for a racist slur he used during a meeting last month.
Councilman Charles Djou said yesterday Tam needs to be reprimanded by the City Council as a body for his use of the derogatory term "wetbacks" on May 13, referring to undocumented workers from Mexico.
Tam had issued an apology, but members of Hawaii's Hispanic community are mobilizing to ensure this type of racist remark is no longer used.
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City Councilman Rod Tam, criticized by the Hispanic community for using a racial slur during a Council committee meeting, brushed off a call for his removal as the Zoning Committee chairman by a colleague as "playing politics."
Councilman Charles Djou said yesterday that Tam should be reprimanded for using the derogatory term "wetbacks" when talking about undocumented workers from Mexico during a May 13 Zoning Committee meeting.
"Because this comment was made during an official meeting at City Hall, it is important that the City Council as a body criticize Rod Tam for this," said Djou, who has a contentious relationship with Tam. "This is inappropriate language and behavior for the City Council to condone."
Djou might introduce a measure at today's City Council meeting to formally reprimand Tam. That measure would require six of the nine votes to be placed on the agenda.
Djou also believes Tam should step down as Zoning Committee chairman, a powerful position that controls land use on Oahu, because he made the derogatory comment during a hearing of that committee. However, that decision is left up to Council Chairwoman Barbara Marshall, who declined to talk to reporters yesterday.
Tam rejected Djou's criticism, saying Djou was using his error in judgment as political leverage to retain his old position as Zoning Committee chairman. When Marshall became chairwoman of the City Council in 2007, she moved Djou to chairman of Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, which is viewed as a less influential position.
"He's trying to use this as an excuse to get his old title back," Tam said yesterday. "That's him crying. He's just playing politics."
Tam had apologized for using the offensive term, saying that he did not know it was derogatory. During a committee meeting last month, he told the developer of the University of Hawaii at West Oahu to have more communication with labor unions to avoid hiring of undocumented immigrants.
"The concern from (labor unions) is basically that they (workers) have to be skilled, licensed workers. We don't want any, uh, wetbacks, basically," Tam said. "We've been receiving (reports about) developers or contractors been bringing in wetbacks from New Mexico. Uh, Mexico."
Elizabeth Hata-Watanabe, who owns the O-Lounge and who is part Mexican, said she believes Tam should step down because his remark perpetuates negative stereotypes about Hispanics.
"(Mexicans) have been able to move forward because of their great numbers, but I think we take a step backward because of these types of negative stigmas," said Hata-Watanabe, who wants to meet with Tam this week. "What I hope this does is to promote other races to say they won't tolerate any form of ridicule, especially by a council member."
Jon Okamura, a University of Hawaii-Manoa professor in the Ethnic Studies Department, said that if a derogatory comment was made against a more prominent ethnic group in Hawaii, such as Japanese or Chinese Americans, there would have been a quicker and stronger backlash.
Racial slurs in Hawaii have been viewed as acceptable in some situations partly because of ethnic humor.
"Comedians perform in public and they do use racial slurs, such as 'buk-buk,'" Okamura said. "They're terms used to refer to Filipinos like 'wetback' is directed to Mexicans. But people in Hawaii don't view them as really offensive terms because we hear it in the context of humor.
"This was official city business. It's appalling that we're not offended enough to reprimand Rod Tam on the spot," Okamura said.