The specter of two national Republican figures apologizing for calling President Obama, the first African-American president, alternately a “tar baby” and “boy” gave new fuel to speculation on the left that underneath much of the criticism of the president and his policies lurks the shadow of racism.
Last week, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R) of Colorado, on a Denver talk radio show, said, “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.”
The term tar baby comes from the 19th-century Uncle Remus stories, where B’rer Fox uses a doll made of a lump of tar to trap B’rer Rabbit, who gets more stuck the more he pummels and kicks the tar baby. In more recent parlance, tar baby is widely considered racial slur.
Other Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have in recent years apologized for using the phrase “tar baby,” although in reference to various government policies and projects, not a black man.
And then Tuesday night, former GOP presidential candidate and MSNBC contributor Pat Buchanan, in a tête-à-tête with the Rev. Al Sharpton, referred to Mr. Obama as “your boy.” “My what?” the Rev. Mr. Sharpton shot back. “My president, Barack Obama? What did you say?”
Mr. Buchanan hinted that he was using a boxing analogy, replying that the president was “your boy in the ring.”
Representative Lamborn, who apologized to Obama in a letter, said in a separate statement Wednesday that he shouldn’t have used a term “that some find insensitive” and that he meant to criticize presidential policies that have “created an economic quagmire for the nation, and [which] are responsible for the dismal economic conditions our country faces.”
“Some folks took what I said as some kind of a slur,” Mr. Buchanan said on Wednesday. “None was meant, none was intended, none was delivered.”
Nevertheless, to some critics, the gaffes are illuminating bits of evidence to underscore what many believe is an essentially racist view of Obama by some in America’s conservative circles.
Given that language is the primary purveyor of people’s deepest thoughts, as well as the fact that language use is often unconscious, “even a slip of the tongue can reflect the kind of prevalence of racism that still exists within our culture,” says Shawn Parry-Giles, director of the Center for Political Communication and Civic Leadership at the University of Maryland in College Park. “Progressives would say it’s part of a larger conspiracy to target voters to use Obama’s race as a means to help defeat him.”
For especially conservative critics of the president, on the other hand, the gaffes hint how the shifting sands of language and perception have become intensified in the not-quite-post-racial Obama era, when some attempts to criticize the president have far overshot the lines of political correctness.
Progressives and tea party members, moreover, continue to be embroiled in a war of words and images in which liberals charge tea partyers with latent racism for some depictions of Obama, and tea party folks say their critics use derogatory terms tied to social class.
“You talk about intent and reception in politics, where intent does matter, but reception is everything,” says Professor Parry-Giles. “In an ideal world, when these situations happen, they can be a source of productive discussion about how language can harm and hurt, and that what may have been appropriate 20 years ago or part of the vernacular is no longer there. Oftentimes, though, it just ends up being a partisan moment on either side.”