Whatever the Texas House speaker pro tem meant to say last week, he just shouldn’t have said it.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, joked in a hearing that it was easier for Texas schools to teach a Hurricane Katrina refugee than a Central American child, because teachers would only have to speak to the “Katrina child” in “coon-a--.”
If it was a thoughtless joke about Louisianans or the Cajun French, which I think it was, it sounded more like an insult coming from an Anglo Texan.
But using that word about the African-American children coming from New Orleans after Katrina sounded even worse.
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Whatever it was, Bonnen regrets saying it.
“I apologize that my use of the term has distracted from the important issue at hand,” Bonnen told the Austin American-Statesman, saying that he meant to focus on whether the federal government will help pay for children’s bilingual education.
It is entirely possible that Bonnen may not know what he meant, or who he was talking about, or what he said.
After all, we’re talking about the Texas Legislature. They make a lot of fun of everybody else, although they really don’t have any room to poke fun.
Bonnen’s comment stiirred up a hurricane cocktail of wrath, some from fellow Republicans.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune quoted the wonderfully named state Sen. Norbèrt N. “Norby” Chabert, R-Houma: “When you make a deliberate comment like that, how can I not get offended as a Acadiana American?”
Then Chabert got to the point: “It's insulting to be called that by someone from out of state.”
State Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro in Lafayette Parish, said the word is offensive “when it’s used by somebody who is not from Louisiana.”
But the real Tabasco-hot response came from Lafayette lawyer Warren Perrin, a board member of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana state economic and cultural agency.
The name is “insulting and derogatory” for Cajuns, he wrote Bonnen, and raises racial connotations: “We will not tolerate the use of this racial slur.”
Perrin’s letter also hinted at a federal civil rights complaint, although a spokesman for the Louisiana lieutenant governor’s office later said the state would not file one.
“Cajuns use the term colloquially, but people find it disparaging from somebody out-of-state,” said Jacques Berry of Lt. Gov. Jay Dardennes’ office.
The state government uses the term Louisiana French, he said.
The word was once thought to have come from a World War II-era French. But historians now attribute it to Texans working in pre-war Gulf oil fields.
Records show as far back as 1940, Texans in a Shell Oil plant in Deer Park insulted a co-worker from Louisiana. According to National Labor Relations Board records quoted by Louisiana author Shane Bernard, an Alec “Frenchy” Vincent filed a complaint after a union leader repeatedly called him a “coon-a--” and too cheap to pay union dues.
Louisiana native Scotty Marks owns the local Boo-Rays of New Orleans restaurants in Fort Worth and Hudson Oaks, among the westernmost outposts of Creole-Cajun cuisine.
“It’s one of those words where half of people take it as a compliment and the other half take it as a an insult,” Marks said Friday.
“People call me that all the time, and I take it as a compliment. But I can see the other side.”
Next hearing, maybe Bonnen could take on something less controversial.
Like whether to change the Donna High School Redskins.