Obama Racism Watch: GOP Rep says associating with him is like touching a “tar baby”

The latest dispatch from a post-racial society. Via Think Progress:

Appearing on the Caplis and Silverman radio show last Friday, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) said, “Now I don’t even want to have to be associated with [Obama], it’s like touching a tar baby and you’re stuck, you’re part of the problem now. You can’t get away.”

A spokesperson for Lamborn said, “Congressman Lamborn regrets any misunderstanding. He simply meant to refer to a sticky situation or quagmire.” Look, I think your everyday Joe Shmoe could perhaps reasonably claim they didn’t know the derogatory history of the term.

But a politician? When the Oxford American Dictionary makes note of its racist connotations? When not one, not two, but three members of his party have found themselves in hot water for using the phrase in recent years? (As Paul quipped at Shakesville, “Learned nothing from Romney, Davis, and McCain, I see.”) And when he’s using the term in reference the first African-American president of the United States?

Yeah, there’s really no excuse.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/fuzzyface/ FuzzyFace

    Sadly, winning an election does not automatically convey common sense. If he didn’t know what it meant when he was a regular Joe Shmoe, and he doesn’t associate in Congress with people consciously aware of its racist meanings.

    I consider myself reasonably well read, but when I hear the term, the only thing that comes to mind is the Uncle Remus story; consequently, I heard it in the sense Congressman Lamborn clearly intended it. The article you linked notes:

    The Oxford English Dictionary (but not the print version of its American counterpart) says that tar baby is a derogatory term used for “a black or a Maori.”

    This is actually the first time I’ve heard of that. I suspect that it is simply not known by people who don’t spend a lot of time focusing on people’s skin color.

  • http://feministing.com/members/alicia/ Alicia

    “I think your everyday Joe Shmoe could perhaps reasonably claim they didn’t know the derogatory history of the term.”

    You are engaging in the logical fallacy of the non-sequitor and of begging the question. You’re reducing those who don’t reach the same conclusion by referring to them as laymen. At the same time, you have no evidence that only laymen would conclude differently than you. Someone might be knowledgable in history, but, given their evidence, fail to accept a racist connotation with the term “tar baby”. Someone might also point out the inconsistencies of dictionary definitions regarding the term. Next year’s Oxford American, for instance, will cite the racist nature of the tar baby as a secondary definition, not a primary definition. Does that make he or she a layman? (The examples provided are not necessarily representative of my personal opinion on the subject.)

    You’re also engaging in a strawman. It is absolutely possible that Lamborn made an honest mistake. It is possible that “tar baby”, to him, merely meant a sticky situation. Yet, you are presuming his guilt, rather than his innocence. In misundersanding what the person (Lamborn) might have actually meant, and then arguing against that, you end up attacking your own misunderstanding (the strawman).

    I agree that Lamborn’s choice of words was poor. I don’t agree that there is “no excuse”. When you say that, you’re making it as though there is no room for arugment. Where there is a topic, there is room for arugment, even if its not one you support.

    • http://feministing.com/members/maya/ Maya

      I’m not saying it’s not possible that Lamborn made an honest mistake. I’m just saying that since he is a public official, who no doubt has people paid to ensure he doesn’t say things that offend people, and is living in a cultural context in which multiple previous tar baby blunders by other politicians might have taught him that it was a phrase he should probably avoid, and the derogatory connotation is not really all that obscure, I hold him to a slightly higher standard in the avoiding saying racist shit department.

  • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    If he seriously did NOT know the term had racial connotations, then I’d say at least he is incredibly out-of-touch and would still question his ability to serve a constituency that consists of people from all racial backgrounds.

  • http://feministing.com/members/fragglera/ Rachel

    I mean i guess maybe he thought it meant something else, cuz maybe he never met nobody who wasn’t white before?

  • unequivocal

    I’m not sure when the term developed it’s racist connotations – it seems to me that it meant “a sticky situation” (based on its use in folklore) before it was ever used as a slur.

    I’m not sure if that makes a difference in the debate about its appropriate usage. I’m inclined to feel that if a word had a non-objectionable usage before a racist usage was developed, that makes its continued usage less problematic (provided it is being used in its original context), but I’m not sure if that intuitive assumption holds up to scrutiny. In other words, it feels to me that using “tar baby” in it’s original context (“a problematic situation that one is better off avoiding”) is less problematic than using “gay” in its more recent context of “stupid and worthless.”

    I will say that it is unfortunate to lose such an evocative phrase. I don’t think there is any other shorthand term that encapsulates the ideas of a problem that becomes worse the more you work to resolve it. That’s insufficient cause to keep it around of course, but it’s still a shame.

    • http://feministing.com/members/clix/ Clickety Keys

      I will say that it is unfortunate to lose such an evocative phrase


      Though I would have felt better about it if he had apologized personally.

  • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ toongrrl

    When he says “Joe Schmoe” is he implying that ol’ Joe is an ignorant [redacted]?
    “Tar Baby”? Really? Hello? The 1950s have gone and passed, it’s the year 2011. Get with the program