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Virginia 'Brer' Foxx Drops 'Tar Baby' Bomb

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), a relatively new face of the House GOP attack machine, has angered some Democrats with her use of the racially charged term "tar baby" during a House floor speech Wednesday.

Virginia Foxx
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) finds herself in a sticky situation.(Linda Davidson / TWP)

As she lambasted Democrats for their plan to ban bonuses for executives of corporations that took government bailout (TARP) money, Foxx said, "I thought about just a common sense way to describe this to people: the Democrats have a tar baby on their hands and they simply can't get away from it. They are stuck on this problem."

She reiterated, "They've got a tar baby. They are not going to shift it off to the Republicans."

But now it seems Foxx is the one who's facing a sticky situation.

Foxx, who tends to target newly elected Democratic House members, has particularly irked Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). One of his main duties as assistant to the speaker is to work closely with freshmen and sophomore House Democrats.

Van Hollen's spokesman, Doug Thornell, said Thursday, "What does it say about House Republicans that they turn to a member like Virginia Foxx, who spews racially offensive comments from a bygone era, to be their attack dog on the House floor? This is yet another example of how out of touch they are with the rest of the country."

A senior aide to a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus criticized Foxx for suggesting she was looking for a "common sense" way to describe the Democrats' plan to limit corporate pay.

"There are millions of other 'common sense' words, terms, and analogies in the English language that would have been less offensive and arguably more effective in her debate," the aide said, adding, "I recommend she edit her vocabulary."

Foxx's spokesman did not return phone calls and an email seeking comment on whether the congresswoman realized the term may be considered offensive.

Foxx isn't the first politician to step in the "tar baby" briar patch.

Two years ago on the campaign trail in Iowa, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) apologized for using the term "tar baby" when answering a question about federal intervention in divorce cases.

One of McCain's rivals, Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, also wound up apologizing for referring to Boston's "Big Dig" fiasco as a "tar baby." Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) also caught flack for using the term last year.

Although the term has a literary and cultural history -- Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, used it as the title of her fourth novel -- over time it has come to be seen as a racial epithet.

And who can forget Disney's "Song of the South" about Uncle Remus and the Tar Baby? That certainly caused its fair share of controversy.

But if politically motivated Democrats are hoping the "tar baby" comment will have an impact on Foxx's reelection chances, they're out of luck, says Joel Thompson, a professor of political science at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., which is part of Foxx's district.

"This is a very conservative and very 'white' district," Thompson says. "The only significant concentration of African Americans in the district is in Forsyth County. Somewhat like her idol, Jesse Helms, Foxx is not fearful of being labeled racist."

Nor is she afraid of the press writing negative stories about her. "I think she would claim that this is just another example of the 'liberal mainstream media' (a term that plays pretty well in the district) trying to get to her," says Thompson.

By Mary Ann Akers  |  April 2, 2009; 4:18 PM ET
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You must admit, the dems do have themselves one dilly of a tar baby on their hands.

Posted by: DaveGeorge1 | April 2, 2009 5:09 PM | Report abuse

The somebody please come up as good or better fable for teaching kids not to loose their cool, especially when there's nothing to be gained. As usual, an unnamed "senior aide" said there were "millions of common sense terms, analogies etc." while ,of course, not offering any up. This story is by far the best teaching cautionary tale about controlling one's anger.

Paradoxically, this is a story that was traded by black slaves, one version has it that Brer Fox and Brer Bear were the plantation owner and overseer and these stories were about survival skills.

This is a great story and I believe all of these people used it in the imaginative sense not trying to be racist. If it offends people, so be it, But come up with something as good or better.

Posted by: jhtlag1 | April 2, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

Please don't look at this so narrowly. Sure, she may be safe or even heralded in her district. Can you imagine the high fives this Church Lady will get this Sunday?

Instead, focus on how this affects the Republican party as a whole, just the same way you did when you wrote about Rupert "the Alien" Murdoch.

Posted by: MikeK3 | April 2, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

Just posted, then read "jetlag."

Please! Does anyone think that this woman said that term by accident or for lack of a better analogy? This was a calculated statement by someone who seems pretty scary.

And must every sensible person (e.g., a Senior Aide) state exactly what should have been said in order for that person to avoid showing obvious racist feelings?

Posted by: MikeK3 | April 2, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

I'm just annoyed that "tar baby" is a term that has become racially charged. Perhaps someone can find a racially neutral metaphor for something that once embraced becomes a messy problem. Too bad Uncle Remus didn't write about a latex baby.

Posted by: edbyronadams | April 2, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

My point is that it is a great story. The English language loses a lot when everything gets Bowdlerized, As a good folk story, it is imaginative, succint and has a point. The alternative is speak like politicians, deceptive mush. (See Napolito's "man caused disasters" for Orwellian doublespeak) Heck, I'm not Obama's biggest fan but I had no problem with "special olympics." (and apparently a lot of people didn't either) that was funny (funny often means not being safe) and showed the real person behind the president.

And OMG, yes you do have to support your propositions. I can't stand getting into arguments where I state a thesis, then support it with, duh, supporting statements only to have someone come back with a statement that doesn't address my arguments nor supports their own. How is that an argument? How is that fair?

What the senior aide did is so typical. State her proposition and effectively declare it self-evident because she thinks it should be. She even threw in a little hyperbole, "millions" as a sarcastic intensifier. She couldn't name one story, one epigram that is as effective in getting across the moral of this folk story.

Give me one equivalent story, maybe one about a kid who sticks his tongue on a frozen pipe as a challenge? See, I've made an attempt, the aide couldn't even get that far.

Posted by: jhtlag1 | April 2, 2009 6:05 PM | Report abuse

As a Democrat, I have to concur that this is a bunch of sound and fury over nothing. The tar baby is the perfect metaphor for the situation we're in right now -- once you pick it up, it sticks to you and you can't get rid of it any more.

Just as with President Obama's innocuous Special Olympics joke, this is yet another sign that people with an axe to grind will pounce on any perceived slight regardless of how it's intended. Why don't we all save our breath and focus on the money being looted from us by the unholy alliance between Wall Street and this administration...

Posted by: jerkhoff | April 2, 2009 6:07 PM | Report abuse

"Baby" is a misogynistic term used to oppress women. It is also a term used to discriminate against children that are age-challenged, namely the pre-toddler and post-natal children.

So, please stop acting like cretins and get in tune with your inner pre-toddler. (Note: I humbly beg pardon to all of our brothers and sisters from the isle of Crete).

Posted by: JoStalin | April 2, 2009 6:08 PM | Report abuse

When are we going to grow up about race relations?
If one takes a more innocent view, a tar baby represents some undesirable, sticky issue few want to handle. Can't we just take it that way? The racial coloring of issues actually can take us back to the very evils most of us want destroyed once and for all.
The issue of banning bonuses in TARP recipients is a sticky issue. It can be dangerously simplistic. Excessive, unjust compensation is a valid issue for these corporations. But, careful fact finding must accompany any compensation issue.
To me it is very unclear to what extent this analysis has taken place with these TARP recipients.

Posted by: peterroach | April 2, 2009 6:24 PM | Report abuse

Let's not forget about Sarah Palin. If her daughter wasn't white and christian, there would be a whispering campaign accusing Palin of supporting a welfare queen.

Somehow it's okay for white christians to have children out of wedlock, but for everyone else its a cardinal sin.

Posted by: UnPatriotic | April 2, 2009 6:42 PM | Report abuse

jhtlag1: "Special Olympics" is a politically correct term, "Tar Baby" is a term used commonly by racists. Even with that and being an Obama supporter, I am not especially offended by her usage, it seems that she was making the point that the Dems were stuck with this one rather than making an overt racist slur.

Posted by: JRM2 | April 2, 2009 6:51 PM | Report abuse

"I'm just annoyed that "tar baby" is a term that has become racially charged. Perhaps someone can find a racially neutral metaphor for something that once embraced becomes a messy problem. Too bad Uncle Remus didn't write about a latex baby.

Posted by: edbyronadams | April 2, 2009 5:34 PM"

Not as apt, but how about "Hot Potato"?

Monte Haun

Posted by: mchaun | April 2, 2009 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Given the demographics of her district, she probably won a few more votes for her next election.

Posted by: LittleRed1 | April 2, 2009 7:00 PM | Report abuse

Foxx did this on purpose. She is rather vile, isn't she? The perfect face of the GOP. Keep 'em coming GOP. Let's see where this gets you.

Posted by: MadAsHell3 | April 2, 2009 7:01 PM | Report abuse

The Tar Baby is a wonderful metaphor. I've been using it all my life without realizing it was racially insensitive. I think Toni Morrison's books should be removed from all libraries because of this.

Posted by: brewstercounty | April 2, 2009 7:11 PM | Report abuse

"Tar baby" is not a racial epithet. "800-pound gorilla" is not a racial epithet. "Niggardly" is not a racial epithet. Please, people, educate yourselves or shut up and occupy yourselves with pastimes that don’t involve exposing your ignorance and imposing your stupidity on others.

Posted by: franklinmjohnson | April 2, 2009 7:14 PM | Report abuse

Ok Dems let's not start a series of knee-jerk Pube-like panty-wadding overreactions. Foxx will Palin herself soon enough without this kind of pointless distraction.

Posted by: washpost18 | April 2, 2009 7:46 PM | Report abuse

In any order, I want to hear or read comments on this from Rush, Palin, Steele, Boner, Issa, McConnell, McCain, Romney.

Posted by: axolotl | April 2, 2009 8:05 PM | Report abuse

How about "Sticky Wicket", "A Big Ball of Gum", "Mud Hole" or "Briar Patch"?

Posted by: Ken_Davis1 | April 2, 2009 8:40 PM | Report abuse

Foxx would probably consider being called a racist as a badge of honor.

Posted by: labman57 | April 2, 2009 9:46 PM | Report abuse

Oh My God; this is news???? This is relavent??? Tar Baby = a sticky situation, from which removing ones' self is difficult.
My attorney just told me to stay away from a business opportunity due to the probable "tar baby effect". The business owner is under investigation for loan fraud. I never had a micro-second of thought about a racial connotation.
Tar Baby = Fly Paper
Why do we so frequently look to find something negative? Pathetic!!

Posted by: rickw1 | April 3, 2009 8:56 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the commenters that say the "tar baby" analogy is a great visual of getting more and more enmeshed in something the harder you try to get out of it. I don't know of any similar example--if there is one, someone should tell us all what it is.

Just because tar is black, and the story became popularized from the Disney movie, does not make it racist. Little Black Sambo was a racist story. The tar baby is not, and I'm tired of people trying to make it into one.

Posted by: dnfree | April 3, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

Although I'm a democrat, I don't find "tar baby" offensive. Today we have so many words and saying that are offensive that it's become a form of attack on the person saying them rather talking about the issue. What I do find offensive are those who ongoing attack a person or issue, but have no solutions to the problem(s).

Posted by: Makemusicb | April 3, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Another tempest in a teapot...some folks are "outraged" for a living.

Notwithstanding the professionally and eternally offended, 'tar baby' in this sense has nothing to do with anyone's race, but simply means something sticky... something that, once you put your hands on it, you can't get loose from. If 'tar baby' has any OTHER meaning, it is obscure enough that I never heard it in my life... and I'm no teenager, but I am a voracious reader, who traveled some, and served in the military with people from all over the country.

There are plenty of real racist bigots out there, who need to be called out. If you go out of your way to read racism into, and be offended by, an old woman's choice of an obvious metaphor to express a simple thought, you are wasting both your time and your credibility. When it comes time to challenge actual racism (which often doesn't even bother to hide...bigots are often perversely proud of their twisted attitudes), you may have "cried wolf" once too often to be heard.

Posted by: Observer44 | April 3, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

One day someone will play that old race card and everyone will say....O, give me a break. But the motto still is, when all else fails, play the race card and your artical proves it still works.

Posted by: glillis | April 3, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Virginia Foxx lost in her home county of Watauga in NC. Unfortunately, she carried the other counties in the 5th district to victory. She shamaes North Carolina with her mean spirit, admitted selfinterest, bigotry and backwardness -- not to mention hipocricy and lack of integreity well known in home town.

She is in serious danger of losing her next election.

Posted by: eldora | April 3, 2009 9:55 PM | Report abuse

It's so very sad overall... Looks like anything can be labeled racist if you look hard enough.

The tar baby was ... well, a small person made of tar. It never moved; it never spoke. Nothing that could be taken as racist. It was just created to trap the impulsive Br'er Rabbit who got mad at the tar baby for not answering his questions and started slugging it. Of course, the more he slugged, the more he got entrapped. And there's your moral - nothing more, nothing less.

Exactly where is the racism there? I just can't see it. Does anyone think that if tar was blue or green it wouldn't have been used in the story? Tar was an available and sticky and moldable substance. Perfect for the purpose.

And Little Black Sambo racist? For God's sake how?? Sambo was a prince, the son of a king and queen. He got into an altercation with a bunch of not-so-nice tigers ... and through his quick thinking and cleverness truimphed over them. Tricking them into turning themselves into melted butter ... wow!

As a small boy, whenever I ate my mother's pancakes and put the butter on them, I would think how brave and smart that little boy, just like me, was. Well, I wasn't royal, and my mother wasn't a REAL queen, but even so ... Oh, did I mention that I was white and he was black?

Posted by: CosmosMarinerDU | April 4, 2009 12:05 AM | Report abuse

A couple of relevant questions:
Did she deliberately use a racial charged term or is she completely without the knowledge and intelligence to not know that this is a racially charged term?
The second question is obvious: which is the scarier answer?

Posted by: potrafka | April 4, 2009 12:06 AM | Report abuse

As a child in the old south a tarbaby had no racial overtones I was aware of. Children will play with almost anything and that includes tar. We molded tar balls into any shape we desired.

But, for those unfamiliar with native tar, it will stick mightily to almost anything.

The common truism was,if you pick up a tar baby you can't put it down.

There is certainly no love lost between me and Ms. Foxx, and I do not propose to defend her use of the descriptive 'tarbaby'. In some context it might have racial overtones, and maybe she meant that way.

But, I'm still scratching my head trying to see the racial connection.

Having lived in a racially mixed share cropper setting as a young child of the south, maybe I just don't have the necessary amount of hate in me appreciate the nuance.

Posted by: OLDSCHOOL2 | April 5, 2009 1:49 AM | Report abuse

Virginia 'Brer' Foxx Drops 'Tar Baby' Bomb

So as a man thinketh, so is he. Let your conscious mind guide you, only the beholder know the truth in this case. What others will perceive from such a term will be on their parts. We need to be mindful that we are engaging millions of mindsets when we step out to address the nation, so we need to respect and act accordingly. The truth shall set you free and the expected is what you sometimes don’t get, so revise and do the right thing.

Posted by: Nisey01 | April 5, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Virginia 'Brer' Foxx Drops 'Tar Baby' Bomb

So as a man thinketh, so is he. Let your conscious mind guide you, only the beholder know the truth in this case. What others will perceive from such a term will be on their parts. We need to be mindful that we are engaging millions of mindsets when we step out to address the nation, so we need to respect and act accordingly. The truth shall set you free and the expected is what you sometimes don’t get, so revise and do the right thing.

Posted by: Nisey01 | April 5, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

She knew exactly what she was saying. She is older than I am and believe me everyone knows this is a racist term. Boy those Republicans - they're different and not in a good way.

Posted by: rlj1 | April 6, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Geez!!! We gotta be kidding. I officially deem this use of the term 'tar baby' to be okay. My qualifications: I am an Obama-voting, affirmative-action approving, Limbaugh-deploring progressive liberal Democrat who probably disagrees with everything Rep. Foxx says.

And if I say this is okay, it thus must be so...

Posted by: BobT3 | April 6, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Mary Ann, I like reading your stuff, but please don't cite Disney of the originator of Brer Rabbit and Song of the South. Those titles originate from a classic by; and I'm going to guess the because I've forgotten, Chandler (?). Anyway it's not Disney! As for the political inuendo, remember, it comes from a Southern Republican. What can you expect? They're rather limited you know.

Posted by: nwsjnky1 | April 6, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

How in the WORLD did such a charming story as Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby come to be seen as racist? Like the boy who cried wolf, making every utterance, regardless of how innocent, racist, weakens, rather than strengthens claims. There is real racism in the world; stop creating it where there is none intended. Stop looking behind every door and under every bed for evil. I think this is mentally unbalanced.

Posted by: cosmiccanine | April 6, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Obama and media to get black votes made Obama into a black candidate when they could have easily made him a white candidate so tar baby is laughable because Obama is not black but is a mutt or mulatto as he himself said.

Posted by: mascmen7 | April 6, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

AND...Little Black Sambo was about an INDIAN child, not a black child in Africa. I adored that story as a child, especially the tigers (who don't live in Africa, obviously) becoming striped pools of butter for pancakes. I always thought Little Black Sambo was quite clever to have outsmarted the tigers & fail to see how THAT is construed as racist.

Posted by: cosmiccanine | April 6, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

let's see - the last time i checked, the Republicans were still stuck to a couple of Tar Babies of their own: the occupation of Iraq and the activities of the Cheney/Bush administration...

Posted by: frank675 | April 6, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, OLDSCHOOL2 for stating just what I was thinking: 'Tar Baby' was something problematic that stuck to the person trying to solve it. Nothing more, nothing less.
And if Tony Morrison can say the phrase without inviting hostility, why can't anyone else do the same?

Posted by: mscynthiaok | April 6, 2009 5:49 PM | Report abuse

For a woman of great education and experience could she just have not used another word, such as "sticky stituation"? For some the term is very degratory and should not be used, there are other words in the english language that could have been used, why not try them?

Posted by: bhgoins367 | April 7, 2009 11:52 AM | Report abuse

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