When United States Representative Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado) last week compared being affiliated with President Barack Obama to touching a “tar baby” during the heat of the debt ceiling debate, the righteous indignation from blacks and advocacy groups like the National Association for the Advancement Colored People (NAACP) led to a predictable apology— of sorts—from the congressman.
The qualifier “of sorts” stems from Lamborn’s letter which suggests that he is “apologizing for using a term some find insensitive.”
Lamborn’s original comment implicates the issue of cultural sensitivity in an era of bitter partisanship, one in which the catchiest sound-byte is usually featured ad nauseam during our 24/7 news cycle.
One could certainly ask whether Lamborn, who was raised in mostly white Leavenworth, Kansas during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, was even aware that “tar baby” is considered an offensive term. It is rather unlikely that Lamborn knew that its origin is from the old Uncle Remus stories where a doll made of tar and turpentine was created to trap “Br’er Rabbit.” Through the years, the phrase became known as a slur, particularly against blacks of a darker hue.
As such, to many blacks, “tar baby” is as much a fighting phrase as the “N” word. Despite this fact, some whites remain incredulous at the thought that such words are often used among some blacks, but the same becomes patently offensive when uttered by whites.
This dichotomy is often reconciled by some blacks who argue that the determination greatly depends upon the intentions of the speaker, as the “N” word among blacks often has been used as a term of familiarity while the same among whites often has been used as a form of derision. Still, there is no national consensus among blacks on the “N” word, as many, particularly those who grew up during the segregation era, find the term demeaning regardless of the race of the user.
As for other racial slurs like Tar Baby, Coon, and any references to apes and gorillas, for generations, these words were used by whites to dehumanize blacks.
One must question whether Lamborn would have used “tar baby” if the president had been Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. Such is doubtful, which is further proof that there was a racist connotation to the slur.
Is it possible that Rep. Lamborn did not know this history prior to being lambasted in the press? Possibly, but it is doubtful. The tone of his apology—that “some” find the words offensive, reveals that Lamborn may not personally find the words offensive.
This regrettable incident simply adds another hurdle for the Republican Party in its attempts to attract black members. In the past 10 years, whether it was Trent Lott glorifying Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential run on the segregation supporting “Dixiecrat” ticket, or former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour arguing that the White Citizens Councils of the 1960’s that served in many respects as the more acceptable, public face of the Ku Klux Klan, were opposed to violence against blacks.
Bigotry, however, crosses party lines. Lest we forget that the most virulently racist politicians of the Civil Rights era, including Governors Orval Faubus of Arkansas, Ross Barnett of Mississippi, and George Wallace of Alabama, were Democrats. More recently, during the 2008 presidential primary, former President Bill Clinton’s referred to then candidate Barack Obama as a “boy” while in 2009, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) gushed about how “articulate” President Obama was—as if the concept of an articulate black man was astonishing.
The fact remains that this so called “post racial” era is anything but; race still matters and is prevalent in the minds of some of President Obama’s detractors and supporters. The beauty in Lamborn’s ignorance is that it forces us to deal with our latent biases instead of neatly sweeping them aside. While the backlash from blacks was predictable, until non-black Republicans and Democrats become equally appalled—Lamborn has yet to be reprimanded or censured—we will see more incidents of Obama critics allowing their inner racist to emerge.