Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Virginia Foxx, GOP love the phrase "tar baby"

John Cosgriff, because of my deep affection for Rep. Foxx (R-NC 5), passed on this video of Foxx dropping the term "tar baby" when discussing the AIG bonus blockage. Watch away.

After watching this, I was blown away. How could any Congresswoman use such a blatantly racist term? So I did some research on the term. First up, Merriam-Webster online:
Main Entry: tar baby
Function: noun
Etymology: from the tar baby that trapped Brer Rabbit in an Uncle Remus story by Joel Chandler Harris
Date: circa 1910

: something from which it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself (emphasis mine)
While also noting the Brer Rabbit story, wikipedia offers this on the usage of the term:
Although the term's provenance arose in African folklore, some Americans now consider "tar baby" to have negative connotations revolving around pejorative images of African-Americans. Specific reasons why the term developed negative racial aspects are difficult to identify. In recent years, several politicians who have publicly used the term have encountered some controversy, mocking, and censure from African-American civil rights leaders, members of the popular daily media, and other politicians. ...

In an interview, Toni Morrison said the following of its use in her book, in an acting of reclaiming: "Tar Baby is also a name, like [the n-word] that white people call black children, black girls, as I recall…...." (emphasis mine)
While Foxx clearly meant the Merriam-webster definition, this term is so racially loaded that no politician should ever use the term.

A google search on the term, however, highlights that many other GOP leaders have used the term. For example, John McCain and Mitt Romney during the presidential primary:
In response to the question, Mr. McCain said that he was not going to take a position that it was proper “to declare divorces invalid because of someone who feels they weren’t treated fairly in court; we are getting into a tar-baby of enormous proportions and I don’t know how you get out of that.”

When told after the event that the word was viewed by some as a racial epithet, Mr. McCain responded: “I hope that it’s not viewed that way.” A moment later, he apologized. “I don’t think I should have used that word and I was wrong to do it.”

One of Mr. McCain’s rival, Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, apologized last year for using the word in referring to the troubled “Big Dig” highway project in Boston. (emphasis mine)
Or former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis on Obama's illegal immigration stance:
In a 20-page memo on GOP electoral woes, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) repeatedly misspells Barack Obama’s name – it’s one R, congressman, not two -- and then manages to use the racially charged term “tar baby” in a paragraph about Obama and immigration.

“Remember,” Davis writes, “Hispanic voters are a swing group in this election and future elections. John McCain, being from a border state, may be out of sync with many Republicans but he has standing among Hispanics. Barrack Obama has not made the sale to Hispanic voters. Thus, this issue is a tar baby for anyone who touches it, with land mines everywhere.” (emphasis mine)
Finally, Senator Corker also on the AIG bonuses:
“It’s a tar baby,” said Corker (R-Tenn.), a senior member of the Banking Committee. “It’s not going to go away."
If Corker and Foxx use the same term on the same legislation, chances are it was some type of GOP talking point. And while these articles were all on the front page of my google search, I am sure that I could tire of citing examples if I looked into the other pages. With the prevalence of the usage of the term by only one party, I think that it is a reasonable conclusion that this term is a dog whistle to certain (extreme) elements of the GOP party. And because the term is derogatory and pejorative in the public mindset, I cannot come to any other conclusion. I am willing to listen to other possibilities if you have any.


JCWhite said... rabble rouser you! LOL

matt said...

i suppose you're offended when black people use the N-word too, right? oh wait, they don't mean it in the same way.....

could it be that they are using the proper definition and that's all? could it be that most charges of racism have nothing to do with racism and you know it? could it be that conservatives have way less likely of a tendancy to group people together based on indentity politcs? could it be that google has a documented history of anti-GOP search results?

this is nothing and it's obvious.

Drew said...


The problem here isn't the technical definition of the term, it is when most of the public views the term disgracefully, politicians should not use it at all. Rightly or wrongly, part of politics is the art of perception, and if most people perceive the term negatively, they perceive the politician negatively for using the term. Since politicians never want to be viewed negatively, they should refrain from the word. We all knows (or should know) the term is derogatory and toxic, so the deliberate usage of the term appears to be intentional, to which I can only conclude, to rile up a certain part of the base.

Let me propose another word that gets at the same definition, "quagmire." And, this is a fairly popular political term.

Look, I understand the whole "political correctness run amok" argument here. But when people use derogatory terms, no matter the technical definition, it is still derogatory. Running to the "anti-PC" defense doesn't somehow make it okay to use these derogatory terms. Simple advice, if people think a term has racist connotations, stay away from the word.

And, I have no way of speaking to how a search engine favors one party over another.

matt said...

you're probably right in terms of politicians shying away from using certain terms. but look, i had no idea tar baby could be taken the wrong way until just a couple years ago, so it's not outside the realm of possibility that some politician who grew up using that phrase (cuz it's pretty old school) and who sees it as so innocent, so non-racist, that it's absurd to them to think otherwise, and so it's still part of their lexicon.

the bigger issue to me is that feigned offense is probably the most annoying thing going on in politics today. if someone uses a word in a non offensive way, i.e. it was clearly not meant as an insult, then nobody has the right to perceive it any other way. the "sayer" of the words is the sole definer of what was intended, and frankly i am tired of people interpreting things people say as offensive when they are clearly not. you may accuse someone of being "insensitive", but last time i checked, that's subjective too. and besides, what happened to "sticks and stones..."?'

not discounting your secondary point that 'tar baby' shouldn't be used on the floor of the Capitol, but come on, to say it's a GOP talking point is just silly and inflammatory. they, and you, are smarter than that.

Drew said...


Fair call out of my talking-point speculation, but when two congresspeople (a senator and a representative) employ a rarely-used word, its not hard to make that conclusion.

Communication is a two-way street like you astutely point out. There is the communicator and the communicatee. There is the intention of the communicator and the perception of the communicatee; without both intention and perception, there is no communication. Both sides have their agency, the agency to intend and the agency to perceive. You say the communicator is the sole definer of intention. I don't think that is true, as my perception colors what I think you intended. If you say something that I perceive as racist, I have the right to call out your language schema. Most people, everyone that I know, finds the term racist. Maybe it wasn't intended as such, but that doesn't excuse the use of a potentially inflammatory message.

I don't accuse you of being "insensitive," but I do ask that you properly account for the perception part of communication. If you are misperceived, then your intention is meaningless.

And to the "sticks and stones," we all know that the childhood rhyme means well. But language shapes reality, and if we use oppressive language, we increase the likelihood that we oppress.

Darren Staley said...

Are we really having this debate? Is there anybody anywhere that doesn't know the meaning behind "tar baby."

What these speakers were discussing was a tar pit, which is like quicksand. It is something that you step in and cannot get out of.

But let's not be naive here. If one Republican mixes the terms it's a slip. If two, maybe one copied the other's slip. If a half-dozen legislators confuse tar baby with tar pit, they are doing so for a reason.

Anonymous said...

Even so . . . Virginia Foxx should know better and should look at the case of George Allen who strayed from proper behaviors and lost his future. Congresspersons and Senators are elected to lead us. The days of snickering in the cloak room after throwing in a few "racially charged" comments are long over.

Congressperson Foxx was wrong, and the others were wrong as well. The moral indication of pink skinned Americans would rise to a level of rebellion should a congressperson of a different skin tone use "a racially charged" metaphor about pink skinned folks. What is fair for one is fair for all, and what is condemning to one is condemning to all of us.

When Virginia Foxx uses such a racially charged phrase, she. rightly or wrongly reflects the status of the GOP has in the South. Where once it was the Democratic Party in the South that was the poster children for racial discrimination, it changed when President Kennedy took office. Today, in the South, it is the Republicans (some of them former old-time Democrats) who carry the banner of racism, all be it seen only in the rare remarks of Virginia Foxx. George Allen, Virgil Goode, and Jim Davis.

The time for racial insensitivity is long over. The time for lame excuses for such behavior is past.

No Matt, this was unacceptable behavior, no matter which bias Google, Fox News or MSNBC happens to have at the moment. Wrong is wrong, and Virginia Foxx was wrong.