Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Eternal Sunshine of Haley Barbour's Mind

Republican strategist Haley Barbour
Looking at Haley Barbour's latest media gaffe, it's hard to tell which is more sad.

A former White House political director, former chair of the Republican National Committee and the governor of Mississippi from 2004 to 2012, actually using the term "tar babies" during a nationwide conference call with more 100 clients of his BGR lobbying firm - or his efforts to brush aside the controversy he generated by arguing the term was not meant to be used in a racist context.

The story's been a pretty big blip on the media radar so you've probably heard about it, but let's quickly recap.

In the wake of the Republican victories last Tuesday, Barbour held a Thursday morning conference call with at least 100 clients of his conservative lobbying firm the BGR Group.

During a Q&A session, while trying to explain to the participants of the call that it was very unlikely that the country would vote for a presidential candidate from the same party as a two-term president leaving office, according to a witness who was on the call claims Barbour said that a Democratic presidential candidate would never endorse President Obama's policies because his policies are "tar babies".

What's a "tar baby"?

In terms of an American cultural reference, the word tar baby is most commonly associated with the image seen at left on this example of product branding that was frequently used in America in the 19th and early to mid 20th century.

"Tar baby" is essentially a derogatory term or image based on historically racist depictions of African-American children; usually depicted with black (not brown) skin, exaggerated, clown-like, red lips and hair bound up in cornrows that stick up or are bound by tiny ribbons.

Think 'Buckwheat' from the little rascals.
Actor Billie Thomas as 'Buckwheat'
(Quick Fact: Did you know Bill Cosby was so fed up with the racist imagery of 'The Little Rascals' that he purchased the rights to the series to ensure they would never be broadcast on television again?)

One of the interesting things about Haley Barbour's unconscious racism is that it's so deeply ingrained in his psyche, he's intellectually not aware that what he's saying can be construed as racist.

Remember, Barbour is from Yazoo City, Mississippi and is on record for defending the actions of the notoriously racist Citizens Councils back in 2010.

Citizens Councils, comprised of a town's leading white citizens, clergymen, business owners, judges, bankers, teachers, politicians and members of law enforcement, sprang up across the south in response to the Civil Rights movement as a means to reinforce segregation, suppress voting rights and enforce Jim Crow-era laws - in some cases, members of these Councils also moonlighted as members of the local chapter of Ku Klux Klan.

That's the kind of environment in which Barbour was raised and this latest verbal gaffe isn't the first time he's used terms that have a definitive racist context when describing President Obama.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, during the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election, while expressing a desire to see NJ Governor Chris Christie help deliver the state to Mitt Romney, Barbour said,

"I would love for Christie to put a hot poker to Obama's butt..."

Bear in mind that the use of red hot iron pokers inserted into bodily orifices as a barbaric, agonizing and horrifying method to punish slaves in the American south is well documented.

Barbour isn't the only white Republican politician to openly use the term "tar baby" either. As the Brotherpeacemaker blog reported, Conservative Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn caught flak when he said, in reference to working with President Obama on the debt ceiling:

“Now, I don’t even want to be associated with him. It’s like touching a, a tar baby and you get it,”

Oh we get it alright Doug.

Senator John McCain, Mitt Romney and former White House press secretary Tony Snow have all used the term publicly; and caught heat for it.

Regardless of his personal views, which he is entitled to, Barbour is a slick political operator.

In response to the media blow-back from his "tar babies" slip, he was quick to acknowledge he did use the term during the BGR conference call and issued an e-mail apology to and "those who may have taken offense" at his use of the term.

Barbour claims his latest use of a historically racist term in reference to the President was taken out of context, according to he claims:

“The Oxford American Dictionary defines the term as ‘a difficult problem, that’s only aggravated by attempts to solve it.’ This is exactly what I meant and the context in which I used the term,”

Yeah, sure you did Haley.

By now it's pretty clear to most Americans that the Republican Party has a 'difficult problem' with a leadership that has a nasty habit of reducing almost anything having to do with the President back to his racial identity.

Or reducing the President's complex policy stances to simplistic, one-dimensional one-liners that tweak the Obama-haters cultivated by Fox News and right-wing media - like intellectual lightweight Senator Ted Cruz calling the President's support of net neutrality "Obamacare for the Internet". (Thanks for the deep insight Ted, try reading a book not written by Ayn Rand.)

The same party that trumpets the election of a female woman of color to Congress (Mia Love in Utah) and talks about "expanding the Republican voter base" to include a wider demographic, consistently demonstrates a remarkable insensitivity to people of color, Hispanics, same sex couples and those who have immigrated to this nation from other countries - D'nesh D'souza excepted from the latter of course.

Remember, Haley Barbour isn't just some dude sitting in a bar with a glass of whiskey in front of him using racist terminology to refer to President Obama.

This is a man widely seen as one of the top Republican strategists in the country on a conference call with more than 100 people listening to him. A man who other Republican STRATEGISTS pay to tell them what moves to make, how to access the power players in the GOP to raise money and what policies will help them win elections.

So if Barbour uses terms like "tar babies" on a weekday morning conference call in a professional environment, what kinds of terms does he use when it's just a handful of Republican power players sitting by the fireside in some restricted country club drinking whiskey and smoking cigars with the door closed?

We certainly don't need to pay a strategist $500 an hour to tell us that.

The sad part, besides Barbour apparently being blissfully unaware of when he's being an offensive bigot, is that his phone number will be on speed dial of the cell phones of the members of the new Republican majority in Congress for the next two years when they need advice.

So don't take offense when Haley Barbour uses the term "tar babies" to describe the President's policies, his words give us real insight into the mindset of today's Republican Party.

Think Mia Love, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) or D'nesh D'Souza were on that conference call?

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