“Tar Baby” — from time to time, this ugly racially charged phrase has come up in our political discourse. Most often, the term is applied to a situation or a thing. John McCain, for example, used it to describe divorces. Likewise, Mitt Romney used it to describe the Big Dig. In both instances, the Republican leaders apologized for using such a loaded word — even though they hadn’t used it to describe an actual person.
The same cannot be said for Representative Doug Lamborn (R-CO), who used the term to describe President Obama in a statewide radio interview on Friday. You can listen to that interview here, which we examined on my KKZN-AM760 radio show this morning. Here’s the key excerpt:
LAMBORN: Even if some people say “well, the Republicans should have done this, or should have done that,” they will hold the President responsible. Now, I don’t even want to be associated with him, it’s like touching a, a tar baby and you get it…you know you’re stuck and you’re part of the problem and you can’t get away.
It has been questioned whether the term “tar baby” is always a racist term. In 2006, Ta-Nehisi Coates explored this issue in Time magazine. “Is tar baby a racist term?” he asked. “Like most elements of language, that depends on context. Calling the Big Dig a tar baby is a lot different than calling a person one.” In this case, that context is quite clear.
This, of course, doesn’t absolve McCain and Romney, who plead ignorance to the term’s racial implications and then promptly apologized. But it is to say that in Lamborn’s case, the ignorance plea would be absurd because he explicitly used the term to describe a black person.
I can’t be surprised by McCain and Romney apologizing for doing nothing wrong… they are both the kind of Republicans I abhor but I hope Lamborn does no such thing. The man said nothing wrong. Nothing at all. The context and usage is clear:
Uncle Remus is a collection of animal stories, songs, and oral folklore, collected from Southern United States blacks. Many of the stories are didactic, much like those of Aesop‘s fables and the stories of Jean de La Fontaine. Uncle Remus is a kindly old slave who serves as a storytelling device, passing on the folktales to children gathered around him.
Br’er Rabbit (“Brother Rabbit”) is the main character of the stories, a likable character, prone to tricks and trouble-making who is often opposed by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. In one tale, Br’er Fox constructs a lump of tar and puts clothing on it. When Br’er Rabbit comes along he addresses the “tar baby” amiably, but receives no response. Br’er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as Tar Baby’s lack of manners, punches it, and becomes stuck. Using the phrase “tar baby” to refer to the idea of “a problem that gets worse the more one struggles against it” became part of the wider culture of the United States in the mid-20th century.
I guess today we’d have to call Walt Disney a racist… after all, he made a very popular movie based on the Uncle Remus stories called Song of the South, one I remember seeing and enjoying as a kid. And I’d like to think that we’ve made giant leaps forward in how blacks are treated since the movie’s heyday. But apparently, the election of a half-black President means so very little to some.
I would respect Obama much more if he were to come out and call this whole Lamborn thing what it is.
Much to do about nothing.
I won’t hold my breath.
UPDATE: Lamborn disappoints:
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Co.) has apologized for the controversial “tar baby” comment he made on a local radio show last week while discussing President Barack Obama and the debt ceiling debate.
On Monday, Lamborn sent a personal letter to President Obama “apologizing for using a term some find insensitive,” his office said in a press release. The congressman was “attempting to tell a radio audience last week that the president’s policies have created an economic quagmire for the nation and are responsible for the dismal economic conditions our country faces. He regrets that he chose the phrase ‘tar baby,’ rather than the word ‘quagmire.’ The congressman is confident that the president will accept his heartfelt apology.”
Lamborn told the Denver Post “I absolutely intended no offense, and if this is at all on his radar screen, I am sure that he will not take offense and he’ll be happy to accept my apology because he is a man of character.”
Disappoints in more ways than one.