Lamborn Strikes the “Tar Baby” Tar Baby

What’s amazing about the phrase “tar baby” (as others have noted) is that in today’s world of political character assassination a politician strikes a tar baby merely by uttering the phrase.

Just ask Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn. As of the moment of this writing, the top Google hit for “tar baby” is a USA Today article, “GOP lawmaker apologizes to Obama for ‘tar baby’ remark.”

Here’s what he actually said regarding the debt-ceiling debate, reports the Denver Post‘s Allison Sherry: “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 now, and you can’t get away.”

Lamborn quickly apologized for using the phrase. But that hasn’t stopped the left from blistering Lamborn.

Because she is an expert in linguistic analysis, Sherry helpfully adds, “Though the term is often defined as a sticky situation, it carries some historic usages that are racially insensitive.”

According to David Sirota, “Lamborn’s choice of words shows how the fringe right is mainstreaming racist language.”

As Westword‘s Michael Roberts reviews, even the free-market Wayne Laugesen says Lamborn shouldn’t have used the phrase.

But what does “tar baby” actually mean, and is it racist? Or (as usual) is the hard left manufacturing outrage to smear a Republican officeholder for partisan purposes?

The Wikipedia entry is actually useful here. It notes a tar baby entraps “Br’er Rabbit” in the classic story. But that’s hardly the origin of the symbol.

Wikipedia also references Joseph Campbell, and thankfully I happen to have a copy of his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces on my desk. On page 87, Campbell describes “the celebrated and well-nigh universal tar-baby story of popular folklore.” Cambell in turn references a 1930 article by Aurelio Espinosa and some other works.

Here’s how Espinosa opens his 1943 follow-up article:

In my Notes on the Origin and History of the Tar-Baby Story… I examined and studied one hundred and fifty-two versions of the tale. In subsequent articles I have continued to affirm my belief in the India origins of the tale in the sense that India is as far back as we can trace it, and that it is not of African origin as some have believed. I have now in my possession two hundred and sixty-seven versions…

No doubt the term “tar baby” has been used by some with racist intent. But obviously Lamborn does not fall in that category. And lots of ordinary words and phrases have been used to convey bigotry, but that doesn’t mean we must eradicate all that language. Rather, we should seek to eradicate the underlying bigotry, where it exists.

A “tar baby” in its oldest and widest use means simply something that entraps you if you start to fight or mess with it. It is now the perfect self-referential phrase.

But is Sirota right that Lamborn’s use of the term “shows how the fringe right is mainstreaming racist language?”

Well, let’s look at some other examples.

In 2004 John Kerry, that veritable champion of the “fringe right,” used the phrase (and took flak for it).

On August 31, 2003, the Denver Post‘s hard-left columnist Jim Spencer wrote, “Last week, those same leaders started looking to the United Nations to pull them free of a Middle Eastern tar baby.”

On July 3, 2006, the Denver Post‘s center-left columnist Bob Ewegen wrote, “Mighty clever fox, that Brer Owens seems to be. First, he appears to sucker Brer Romanoff into tangling with that political tar baby, ‘immigration.'”

On March 9, 2002, the often-left-leaning Denver Post editorial board wrote, “When the House Civil Justice and Judiciary Committee voted 7-2 on Thursday against creating a special panel with subpoena powers to investigate Columbine, it was only the latest public agency to decline hugging this tar-baby issue.” On April 14, 2002, it wrote, “Meantime, a parade of public officials has pirouetted out of the path of a tar baby they’d rather not dance with…”

Over at the left-leaning Westword, the term has been used by Alan Prendergast (and again) and editor Patricia Calhoun.

(Update: Here’s another little irony: while Sirota wrote his screed forSolon, another left-leaning writer, David Corn, used the term “tar baby” in an article for Salon several years ago.)

So I’ll go ahead and hold my breath waiting for Sirota to denounce Joseph Cambell, Jim Spencer, Bob Ewegen, the Denver Post, Alan Prendergast, and Patricia Calhoun for helping the “fringe right” mainstream “racist language.”

Or he could just stop smearing Republicans over make-believe issues.


Wayne Laugesen commented August 3, 2011 at 11:31 AM:
Great column, Ari. You nailed it, as usual. — Wayne Laugesen

Amie commented August 4, 2011 at 1:01 PM
The difference between the incidents given is that it was used towards a person of color not a situation. To refer to a man as a “tar baby” is different than referring to a particular situation as a tar baby. Big difference!!

Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 1:03 PM
Amie, You are simply misstating what Lamborn actually said. Please see my follow-up:

Anonymous commented August 4, 2011 at 1:34 PM
This is a copy of my letter to Wayne and it applies to you too Ari: Wayne, Your comment about the 3 little pigs is far reaching. Tar baby is and was a derogative term used against people of color. It’s a term used to belittle them and encourage hatred. You can continue attempting to defend Mr. Lamborn or you can fess up and admit that such a mean spirited term easily rolling of his tongue is unacceptable.
The fact that others have used it doesn’t make it the right thing to do. You know that.
In today’s climate of increasing hate and acceptance of bigotry any and all innuendos, whether intentional or not need to be stopped immediately.
Pat Hill

Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 1:39 PM
Pat, Your claims are complete nonsense, and they reveal a basic ignorance about the origins of the tar baby. The tar baby is an African folktale! Please read my two follow-up articles:

Amie commented August 4, 2011 at 2:13 PM
Ari – you are going to defend him regardless of the IMPACT that was felt. Please google Intent vs. IMPACT? It is the IMPACT that matters.
“Even if some people say, ‘Well the Republicans should have done this or they should have done that,’ they will hold the President responsible. Now, I don’t even want to have to be associated with him. It’s like touching a tar baby and you get it, you’re stuck, and you’re a part of the problem now and you can’t get away. – He was using the term to describe President Obama not a certain situation. And why is MR. Lamborn deleting comments from his Facebook page?

Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 2:16 PM
Amie, Your argument is again complete nonsense. If it’s “the impact that matters,” then the logical course would be to repeal the First Amendment. What matters is motivation. In your reading of Lamborn’s comments, you are conveniently neglecting the terms “stuck” and “the problem.” I imagine that if Lamborn’s staffers are deleting Facebook comments, its because some posters are libeling the guy. -Ari

Anonymous commented August 4, 2011 at 2:26 PM

You missed the entire point of my email – which being – the term is used negatively. The roots of the term are irrelevant. It’s the current conception of the word that is. Even the N word wasn’t quite the connotation that it is today. You are trying to find excuses for it and there just aren’t any. Pat (and please, I don’t call you words nonsense, irregardless of what I think of them, I’d appreciate the same courtesy).

Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 2:32 PM
Pat, In calling your arguments nonsense, I am making a factual assessment, and one I stand by. The roots of the term are extremely relevant, for they reveal that the racist misuse of the term is an aberration based on fundamental ignorance of the folklore. As I’ve indicated, the real problem is obliterating important African folklore simply because a few idiots abuse it. And, as my examples make clear, the term has been widely used in its proper meaning up to the present day. (Please note that I may decline to continue posting back-and-forth that does not significantly advance the debate.)

James Howald commented August 4, 2011 at 2:55 PM
When I taught composition to freshmen at USC, it was always a struggle to get them to accept that the associations their audience would bring to their choice of words was every bit as important as what they meant when they wrote them. A skilled communicator considers connotation as well as denotation, even though connotation may be more slippery. Lamborn’s statement was a mistake because it got people talking not about his point but about his personality and his choice of words. He failed to get the spotlight on Obama, and directed it at himself instead. If you are in public life, you need to able to manage the discussion. Lamborn made a rookie error, although he’s no rookie at this point.

Anonymous commented August 4, 2011 at 3:02 PM
The term has also been used even more widely as a racial slur. The existence of one (literature) does not negate the existence of the other (racial slur). They both “are,” and both are valid.

If Lamborn was giving a presentation on literature and used the term, no foul. But the fact is, Lamborn used it from his podium as a US legislator to describe our Black President.

Lamborn is a duly-elected representative of his district and constituents, which include not only readers of Br’er Rabbit but also African-Americans. He failed to fulfill his obligations to all. He offended his consituents. Period.

Ignorance is not an excuse, nor do I personally buy that he didn’t know exactly what he was saying. Racial code words abound since we have elected a Black President. But I digress.

Bottom line: Lamborn should have known better. Is ignorance of a racial slur an excuse to use it? Not at all. Just like ignorance of the law is not an excuse to break that law.

Using Lamborn’s logic, the same would be true of this scenario:

Lamborn runs a red light, seriously harming a pedestrian. It was unfortunate, yes; intentional, no. He should not be held accountable as he wasn’t aware that running a red light was against the law. And further, “If there’s reasonable people, they’ll know this was totally unintentional on my part.”

Although mighty creative, Lamborn’s argument is laughable. And I’m sure Lamborn even in his lawyer days, having presented that argument, would have been laughed right out of court. And the Judge, being a reasonable guy, wouldn’t give two bits that Lamborn felt he was being “unreasonable.”

Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 3:06 PM
The claim that Lamborn called Obama a tar baby is simply a lie, and I will not post any additional such lies on this page.

Anonymous’s analogy to striking a pedestrian with a car is so strained, so ridiculous, that it demands no rebuttal.

Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 3:29 PM
Please allow me to soften the above comment. I’ve carefully explained why the claim that Lamborn called Obama a tar baby takes Lamborn’s actual statement out of context (again, observe the words “stuck” and “the problem”). Given I’ve done that, I’m really not interested in posting additional comments here that continue to take Lamborn’s comments out of context. I really do need to extricate myself from the “tar baby” tar baby at some point! But I apologize for coming across as overly heated, and I do appreciate people reading my posts, even (or perhaps I should say especially) when they disagree. Our mutual goal should be to reach valid conclusions through reasoned review and debate.

Anonymous commented August 4, 2011 at 4:03 PM
Analyzing Lamborn’s remarks from an English grammar point of view: I don’t even want to be associated with him. It’s like touching a, a tar baby. The word “him” in this sentence refers back to President Obama, and “a, a tar baby” refers back to “him” which refers back to President Obama. If any of the White, male presidential candidates in 2008 were president now, Do you think Lamborn would have chosen that phrase, “tar baby”? Neither do I. Just as we no longer refer to “Little Black Sambo”, “tar baby” is passé. And actually I’m beginning to think that only men and/or politicians use this term. I have NEVER heard it in conversation–except when I lived in the Detroit area where it was used by Whites as a racial slur along with the word “Sambo”.

Ari commented August 4, 2011 at 5:46 PM
Dear Anonymous, Why do you think it’s remotely fair to quote only part of Lamborn’s comments? In context, he obviously means the tar baby remark to refer to getting “stuck” in “the problem.” As is abundantly obvious to anyone who has given a live presentation, it is impossible to always state all of one’s points with absolute, crystal clarity. That is simply the nature of extemporaneous speaking.

Why are you so determined to take Lamborn’s quotation in the worst possible light? Those who assume, without evidence, that Lamborn is a racist simply want to see Republicans as racists, and no amount of evidence to the contrary will persuade them.

As to how you’ve heard the term used, that reveals nothing about the essential meaning of it. But, for what it’s worth, I’ve never personally heard the term used with racial overtones, and I’ve offered numerous examples of it being used in its legitimate meaning.

Thanks, -Ari

Anonymous commented August 5, 2011 at 7:08 AM
Schizophrenics often suffer from paranoid delusions. They see things that don’t exist.

We need a new term, racialphrenics. Basically a type of schizophrenia in which the victim sees racism when it does not exist. Characterized by a hyper sensitivity to their surrounding resulting in racial delusions.

Anonymous commented August 5, 2011 at 9:27 PM
Seems like some folk’s day just isn’t complete till they’ve been offended….just say’n.

Anonymous commented August 6, 2011 at 1:57 PM
Ari perhaps you have not studied black history. Hot tar was poured over slaves and then they were covered with feathers and displayed to the rest of the plantation to invoke terror. The term “tar baby” invokes memories of this practice and should not be used toward any black person let alone the President of the United States.

RUKM commented August 6, 2011 at 5:50 PM
Thanks for your in-depth study of the origin and use of “tar baby”. I appreciate it. Of course, Lamborn was referring to the debt-ceiling “crisis” and not to a person. But, don’t expect any logic from the fringe left!

Ari commented August 8, 2011 at 7:56 AM
Tar and feathers is most associated with upstart colonialists targeting disfavored public officials. Clearly it is not an inherently racist term. And, obviously, tarring and feathering has nothing to do with a tar baby. Or should we simply ban tar and its term?