The Dark Legacy of “Tar Baby,” “Boy” and Other Racial Slurs

The Dark Legacy of “Tar Baby,” “Boy” and Other Racial Slurs


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.


  1. You cannot be serious. African American, Blacks or whatever you want to refer to us as, walk around calling themsleves and others "tar baby". We don't call eachother "coons" or "gorilla". We don't walk around saying "what's up ape". It's degrading so stop playing in the middle and take a stand against it.

    Btw if you live in NYC the N word is used by latinos, whites and blacks. So whether you like the word or not, it's how you are using it, not that you are using it. There is a difference.

      • You make sense – but you are not a knuck dragger!
        How about we start calling the tea baggers what they truely are – white trash – I"m from .Co and we know that colorado springs is the place that brought us Amandment 2 – rapes at the Airforce Academy, Focus on the Family, all fueled by impotent men like this sub human. I vote in Colorado and Doug hasnt long to survive.

  2. tar baby?!? are you serious?? How sensitive are you going to get?? It's part of a cartoon! Tar is sticky. You get gooiy touching it as anybody does with Obama Socialist policies. Grow up! stop wearing your fealings and politically confused words on your sleeves.

  3. I heard the dreaded "n" word at FAMU more than anywhere. Blacks call each other this on a regular basis along with other very degrading names. I've also "heard" what blacks call whites – when they think none are around. Grow up. Solve real problems of the HUMAN commmunity – unwed mothers/fathers, crime, joblessness, etc, etc, etc

  4. "allowing their inner racist to emerge." Who is really being racist when everytime something is uttered the first to complain it's a "black" iisue are the blacks even when as claimed here there was nothing really meant by it? Reminds me how "sensitive" a teacher was when three 8 year olds were speaking Spanish on the playground – saying their "colors" they were learning in class. Guess what "teacher" overheard?!

  5. That just show what kind of respect he has for the president. That would not have even been said if a white president was in office. Gotta love ignorant people!

  6. Dear GOP Defenders,

    Why are victims of the Hate, Racism, and Some cases Famlies who have lost love ones to evil deeds for centuries Told “To Just Let It Go”? Yet if this was happening to them and their loves there would be a scream so loud God would tempted to plug his ears.

    Stop! We get it !! We no longer except your empty GOP apologies.

  7. Revised/Edit/Corrections to above comment.

    Dear GOP Defenders,

    Dear GOP defe

    Why are victims of the Hate, Racism, Violence and in Some cases Families who have lost their love ones to evil for centuries Told “To Just Let It Go”? Yet if this was happening to you are your love ones you would be screaming so loud  of the injustice I believe even God would be tempted to plug his ears.

    Stop! We get it !!  Especially when your apologies are sarcastic and filled with repeated racist(tar baby)insults. 

    • The British called my ancestors at Valley Forge (and yes I do have ancestors that were there) "rebels" as a derogotorie statement. The Lincolnites called my ancestores “ Johnny reb.” I accept both with honor for them standing up to tyranny. Blacks call me “cracker” for being “white,” in their own ignorance. Though the term is a term of honor for those who WORKED running cattle thru Florida. (Though none of my ancestors nor I ever did, I acept as a term of honor of a people who WORKED for a living.)

    • And I do not appologize for anything my ancestors did. That information has connected me to my family today – both black and white. Yes, my gg-greatuncle owned slaves and that info connected me with their decendants last year in one of the best "family" reunions I been to in many years!

  8. An interesting "racial" slur?:

    "Finally, the tid-bit re McClellan. “McClellan, who had been insolent to Lincoln on several occasions and referred to him (Lincoln) in letters to his wife as “the original gorilla.”

    President Licnoln refered to as a Gorilla – by his own General! Y'all have been comparing Obama to Lincoln – maybe we should use all the terms applied to Lincoln?

    Me thinks y'all are making Mountains out of mole-hills and giving false power to words that have nothing to do with anything….