THE BLOG

Tea Party Tar Babies

Aug 15, 2011 | Updated Oct 15, 2011

I do not accept Rep. Lamborn's apology for referring to the president of the United States as a tar baby. According to his spokesperson, what he had meant to say was that the president's policies are a quagmire. I don't accept this backtracked admission/apology, either. This "tar baby" epithet is just the latest in an intermittent string of racialized stunts, deployed in dog-whistle fashion -- usually by folks on the right, to inject culturally divisive sentiments into an already vitriolic public discourse. Rep. Joe Wilson called the president a liar in the midst of a presidential address to Congress. Mr. Pat Buchanan referred to the president as "your boy" in an on-air discussion with Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC. Fox News referred to the president's 50th birthday party as a "Hip-Hop BBQ." Many people (white and black) will not pay much attention to these veiled, high-pitched racial insults. As a nation, most Americans are more interested in economic stability and progress than this type of trite but not insignificant race baiting. Amongst the ironies operable in this quagmire is the fact that we are very much in need of centering race and ethnicity in our public discourse on economic recovery -- that is, if we can get black and brown folks back to work (especially if this effort can take the form of jobs to develop infrastructure), we can get a handle on our unemployment woes.

Recently it has become trendy for political pundits to pronounce the end of the Obama era. On the Aug. 3 "Ed Show," with guest host Michael Eric Dyson, Bill Maher, the left's Limbaugh, suggested that he had lost faith in Obama and that he was imminently beatable by the current, competency-challenged crop of Republican presidential candidates. It's hard to imagine being entangled with a Bachmann or Perry presidential administration for four years. In the wake of the Tea Party's attempt to stifle the American economy through the manipulation of our political system, folks would rather not face the ways in which race underwrites too much of the negative sentiment directed at this president, not to mention our willful dismissal of the inherited economic challenges of this moment in American history. I suppose the president's administration could and should tell a better story. Maybe they need a little bit of Uncle Remus up in the white house.

By S&P's own explanation, it was the political "brinksmanship" of the recent debt-ceiling debacle that informed their decision to downgrade the United States' credit rating, a decision that has had an exacerbating effect on an already vulnerable global economy. Surely the "conciliator-in-chief" cannot be accused of engaging in political brinksmanship. He has been the portrait of compromise, and in fact, the president has demonstrated a subtle understanding of what America is up against as long as the Tea Party Tar Babies continue their minority manipulation of the political process.

In the bit of chatter that surfaced in response to Rep. Lamborn's "tar baby" comment, most folks highlighted the conventional definition of the term as a doll covered in tar used to entrap Br'er Rabbit (that's shorthand vernacular for Brother Rabbit), a trickster figure made popular in the pages of the Uncle Remus stories. Some acknowledged the fact that the term has also been used as a racial epithet in reference to African Americans. One conservative writer disrespected the comedic legacy of the late Bernie Mac by suggesting that he was an "ignorant racist" for referring to himself as a "tar baby." No one has ventured to describe the history of slavery and lynching that directly inform the full meaning of the word "tar" for black folk in these United States. In Frederick Douglass' slave narrative he tells the parable of a garden on a plantation that was protected by a tarred fence. Enslaved black folk were barred from the fruits of their own labor by this fence. They were severely beaten if even a spec of tar was discovered on their person. Thus they came to "fear the tar as much as they did the lash." During the heyday of lynching, mobs of white Americans would tar, burn and dismember their black victims as public spectacle and/or communal entertainment. Bernic Mac's "tar baby" bit is a tragic/comic exploration into this dark history, an attempt to recover the collective humanity of those people who were cast as tar babies in the real fires of racist America.

Rep. Boehner, the leader of the House Republicans, bragged that he "got 98 percent of what [he] wanted" out of the debt ceiling deliberations. That being the case, the credit downgrade must assuredly be included in that boast; ditto for the downward spiral of U.S. and global stock markets. And herein lies the Machiavellian strategy to defeat the president: hamstring the U.S. economy, entangle the public discourse in the ignorant discourse of spending cuts sans revenue generation, and ignore the collateral damage visited upon America's working poor, the elderly and the rapidly diminishing middle class. For the rabbit in the Uncle Remus story, the tar baby was an extremely effective decoy, a mute distraction that entangled him and prevented him from continuing on his appointed course of rectitude. Make no mistake about it: the president is the rabbit in our current political narrative, and the role of the tar baby is being well-played by Rep. Boehner and his Tea Party compatriots.