Radio listener calls out Sheriff Grady Judd over term 'cotton picking'

Father claims phrase insensitive to African-Americans

POLK COUNTY, Fla. – A radio listener said comments made by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd this week were insensitive toward African-Americans.

The comments were made Wednesday morning in a radio broadcast on WPCV-FM, 97.5, in Lakeland.

During an interview, Judd told the story of a black teenager who was recently arrested by deputies.

"He goes up onto a porch and steals a bicycle," Judd was heard telling the hosts.  "Keep your cotton pickin', sticky hands off people’s property."

"Cotton-picking, sticky hands. It's his words saying it," said Tony Corletto.

He said he was in his car taking his daughter to school when they heard Judd on the radio.

"I couldn't believe that a man that is supposed to have his posture, with his level of authority, is saying a racial slur like that on the radio for everyone to hear," he said.

News 6 took Corletto's concerns about Judd's use of the phrase to the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

A spokesperson said the sheriff didn't know the suspect was black when he made the remarks: 

"The sheriff is heard by hundreds of thousands of people through TV, the radio, and during public speaking events every week, and he's absolutely certain of one thing -- that despite his best efforts to the contrary, someone somewhere may misunderstand what he says."

That's not enough for Corletto, who said he's turned Judd's comments into a teaching moment for his 6-year-old.

"Admit to what you said, own up, be a man and you say you're sorry," he said.

University of Central Florida associate English professor Beth Rapp Young, Ph.D., told News 6 the phrase "cotton-picking" has been used many times over the years with no intended racial overtones.

"I checked a couple of research corpora and some standard dictionaries (Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, Oxford English Dictionary), and all of them say that this expression of disapproval originated in the 1950s, though linguists have found earlier instances of it," she said.  "None of the dictionaries label this phrase as being racially charged or offensive."  

She said the phrase was used in Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 1950s.

"However, it's easy to see why people find 'cotton-picking' to be offensive, since we all know that slaves picked cotton," she said. "A similar term, 'cotton picker,' is definitely considered to be a slur."

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