Words are tricky things. Witness the evolution of the n-word, described in The Post's excellent new exploration as a "shifty organism" that has split off into a "second specimen" and "defies black-and-white interpretations and hard-and-fast rules."
The same could also be said about the phrase "tar baby." While not nearly as toxic, prevalent or flat-out offensive as the n-word can be, "tar baby" is on the spectrum of linguistic snafus bearing racial baggage that are best to be avoided when talking politics -- kind of like using "articulate" to describe a black person's speech patterns. (Joe Biden, Harry Reid, Joe Manchin have all use this word to describe the way President Obama talks so good.)
Which brings us to former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour (R). According to Politico, Barbour described Obama's policies as "tar babies" on a conference call with clients of the lobbying firm he founded. What, we assume, Barbour meant is that Obama's policies are so toxic that nobody who will run for president in the future would possibly endorse them.
(Now, Barbour has had a heck of a time discussing race in the past. It happens that way when you're from Mississippi and nostalgia sometimes gets in the way of history. The former governor, for instance, made the 1960s anti-segregationist efforts in his state sound like a pep rally in a 2010 profile in the Weekly Standard. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” Barbour said of the civil rights movement in the South. “I remember Martin Luther King came to town, in ’62. He spoke out at the old fairground and it was full of people, black and white.”)
Barbour, when contacted by Politico, offered up the classic non-apology apology favored by politicians. “If someone takes offense, I regret it," Barbour said. "But, again, neither the context nor the connotation was intended to offend."
"Tar baby," happens to be one of those words used so rarely, that when it is used, it brings to mind a certain era and region -- and for some people, racial baggage too. Thing is, most people under 40 probably wouldn't ever use the word and didn't grow up being familiar with its folklore (or racist) past.
So, here's some of that past. In various cultural folklore, the "tar baby" character is a staple, where gum or wax is used to ensnare a character. Joel Chandler Harris brought us his version of these tales as Br'er Rabbit and Tar Baby, who was sometimes depicted as a mute black doll with eyes and a straw hat. Because of the prevalent southern racial mores these stories came out of, it's hard to look at some of the renderings and not see race.
Disney, for instance, has kept its racially tinged musical "Song of the South," under lock and key for the last for many years.
So where does "tar baby" fall on the offensiveness spectrum? It would be great if there was a racial meter, but there isn't so this is the best we can do:
John McWhorter, in The New Republic, has described "tar baby" as an "intermediate case" -- a phrase that has a legitimate double meaning:
The basic meaning is the folkloric one, while a derived meaning, known only to a segment of American English speakers (and to many among them, only vaguely) is a dismissive reference to black people.
Barbour wants us to believe that for him the phrase "tar baby" has shed any racial past, and maybe didn't even ever have one. And it could be that "tar baby" has moved from being benign, to offensive, and back to benign.
We can only take Barbour at his word, but for Barbour and others of his generation, it's probably best to let "tar baby" go. "Albatross" will do just fine. And be far less trouble.