On Saturday, Mitt Romney, the Governor of Massachusetts who is also widely considered to be a potential Republican candidate in 2008, used the term "tar baby" to describe the quagmire that has become of Massachusetts’s "big dig" project:
"The best thing politically would be to stay as far away from that tar baby as I can," [Mitt Romney] told a crowd of about 100 supporters in Ames, Iowa.Black leaders were outraged at his use of the term, which dates to the 19th century Uncle Remus stories, referring to a doll made of tar that traps Br'er Rabbit. It has come to be known as a way of describing a sticky mess, and has also been used as a derogatory term for a black person."Tar baby is a totally inappropriate phrase in the 21st century," said Larry Jones, a black Republican and civil rights activist."He thinks he's presidential timber," Jones said. "But all he's shown us is arrogance."Romney's spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, said the governor was describing "a sticky situation.""He was unaware that some people find the term objectionable and he's sorry if anyone's offended," Fehrnstrom said.Fehrnstrom produced copies of editorials and columns from Boston newspapers using "tar baby" in a context similar to Romney's. One example from 2004, a Herald editorial, used the term about the Big Dig itself."It just goes to show you that not everyone is aware the term is considered offensive to some people," he said.White House spokesman Tony Snow sparked similar criticism in May when he used the term in response to a question about government surveillance.This reminded me of a scene in Clerks 2, where one of the lead characters, Randall, casually uses the term "porch monkey," thinking he is describing a lazy person, only to terribly offend a black customer. Dante, the other lead responds:
Dante Hicks: 'Porch monkey' is a racial slur against black people!Randal Graves: Oh it is not! Coon, spook, spade, moolie, jigaboo, nig-nog, those are racial slurs!Now I had heard of only one of those epithets. It's absurd for PC groups to expect everyone to know that every term ever used to negatively describe a group must never be uttered, no matter the context or intent of the statement (Eugene Volokh has a much more advanced discussion of Mitt Romney's statements here--by advanced I mean he doesn't cite Clerks 2). Honestly, these activist groups need to get a life and fight the real civil rights battles that are still all around us.