As far as I can recall, ‘tar baby’ has been a racist term. It dates back to the Uncle Remus stories, which included a doll made of tar that traps Br'er Rabbit. In the 1800’s America, the black sticky doll symbolized the festering "black problem" for whites and, as such, has been a racial epithet for over a 100 years.
So why would Governor Mitt Romney in a speech in Boston last July, and Senator John McCain while campaigning just this week in Iowa, use the term?
Incredibly, Romney and McCain say they used the term to simply mean a “sticky problem”, and that neither knew it was racist. Unlikely. Both are smart, veteran politicians that know the meaning and powers of words. They knew exactly what they were saying and why they were saying it.
My belief is that they may be engaged in an old American game of appealing to voters for whom the use of such terms is common, while pretending not to.
In the past, politicians in certain quarters would simply use the “N” word and not apologize for it. In today’s PC world, politicians use more subtle ways. Using a term with a double meaning like ‘tar baby’ and then claiming innocence is clever. Having used the term in a public speech, its coded message is sent and received by the intended audience.
As I said, coded messaging is common for politicians seeking votes from racists. For example, popular today is saying you’re against ‘illegal’ immigration. It’s code for I hate those brown people, too, and we’re going to get rid of them. Actually, there’s little PC constraint on racists today when it comes to immigrants. All they have to do is add ‘illegal’ and they enjoy free reign to say—and sometimes do—the most hateful things.
Using racist code messages is a bi-partisan thing in America. Think: GWB’s silence in regards to the confederacy flag; and Joe Biden’s boast that Delaware was a slave state.
Here are examples from two of America’s most popular recent Presidents: Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.
As the Democratic primaries turned to the South, Clinton maintained his moderate liberal rhetoric, but he did two things to send a very powerful message to white southern voters: 1) he rushed back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of convicted killer Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged black man; and 2) he posed with Georgia Senator Sam Nunn in front of a phalanx of black inmates in white prison suits taken at Stone Mountain, Georgia. Stone Mountain was viewed as a symbol of the KKK. The picture appeared in newspapers all across the south the day of the southern primaries in 1992.
After receiving his party’s nomination in Detroit, Michigan in mid-July, Reagan waited until August 3rd, to deliver his first presidential speech. That speech was delivered in Philadelphia, Mississippi—and on the eve of the anniversary of the killings of civil rights workers Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman. The subject of Reagan’s speech? States Rights.
Are Romney and McCain racists? I don’t think so. (McCain himself was nuked mercilessly in South Carolina because his adopted daughter of East Indian heritage. GWB's allies spread rumors that McCain has fathered the girl.)
They may be, however, using racial codes in order to appeal to racists. And while what they may have done pales in comparison to what Clinton and Reagan did, it’s still despicable.