A small group of Congressman Doug
Lamborn's 5th District Southern Colorado
constituents met with him in August of 2011 to voice their displeasure over the Senator's use of the term "Tar Baby" with reference to the president's economic policies. The congressman gamely played the piñata as the group lectured him, at times crossing the line between holding Lamborn accountable for what he said into speculation about why he said it. Making a case for what a person was thinking when they said something is a slippery slope. This was, essentially, a room full of preachers, whose very calling relies on our right to free speech, a right that is eroded when we start policing the thoughts inside someone's head. Was Mr. Lamborn being disrespectful to the Office of the President? Sure, but that's the political status quo these days. Was he being racist? That depends on what he was thinking when he reached for that specific simile, and only Doug Lamborn could possibly know that. There is no apparent pattern of Mr. Lamborn issuing intolerant or racist statements directed at the president. If Mr. Lamborn is, indeed, a fire-breathing Obama-Hating racist, he’s really bad at it.
Fifteen Months Later
There are, to my knowledge, no measurable efforts to vote Lamborn out this year. No rallies, no eblasts, no websites, no postal mailings. Not from the Urban League, not from the NAACP, not from any black church or any individual. So far as I am aware, this blog post is the first election-season mention of Lamborn—a conservative who seems far more invested in caucusing with conservative extremists like Missouri Rep. Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin over social issues (they co-sponsored a bill which would take away a rape survivor’s access to health services) than he is in serving this community or even getting to know his own constituents. On general principles, Lamborn has not distinguished himself beyond the lunatic fringe of the GOP right wing (whom his "Tar Baby" simile was likely intended to impress). His generally intolerant attitude toward this president—and, by extent, all of Black America—has produced no real consequences for him beyond the well-intended but largely symbolic and poorly-planned 2011 meeting with a smattering of local black pastors and constituents. Now two weeks from Election Day 2012, the matter is all but forgotten, the black church here having gone back to sleep as usual, while the machinery of hate and racism runs us over.
This election season, what I've wanted to read was the minutes of
the next meeting—the follow-on meeting from the
congressman—How Am I Doing? Are Your Concerns Being Addressed?
Where are the photos of the congressman attending a service at a
black church, joining in the fun at a black picnic or block
party? Where are copies of the letters or emails exchanged with
the network of black pastors and community leaders? To my
knowledge, Congressman Lamborn has walked away clean. His mea
culpa photo op with the handful of black pastors in a two-thirds
empty church sanctuary was the only Get-Out-Of-Jail card he
needed. He, like most politicians in this town, couldn’t
possibly care less about the city’s miniscule African American
community, not because we’re black but because we’re so divided.
Because we are essentially leaderless and what spiritual
leadership is in place has no demonstrable political skill.
The black community holds no politician—Lamborn or anyone
else—accountable for anything. We are ignored because we are
My dismay is pointed not so much at Congressman Lamborn but at our black leaders, here, for not holding him accountable. Forcing the meeting was a good idea, but (so far as I am aware) the leadership failed to consult with anyone with real political experience. This is a general fault line among both religious and political leaders, white and black, that the very strengths that make them a strong leader often blind them to their limitations. This group went in and demanded Lamborn's resignation, which I could (and would have) told them was a waste of time. They should have asked for, demanded, something Lamborn actually could cough up to save his soul. And there should have been machinery left in place to hound the congressman right up to this Election Day, at which the Black Community should have opposed Lamborn's reelection. Not for his insensitive or intolerant statement, but because the congressman learned nothing from the experience. Because he has made no perceptible effort to work with the black community, here. We should not seek to punish Lamborn but we should hold our public servants accountable. So far as I am aware, no strategic follow-up work, no 5th District lobbying has been done. Boldness is an important virtue for leaders, but uninformed boldness is called "arrogance." There's a lot of smart people in this town. The group should have consulted some of them before engaging with a seasoned politician. This is a consistent failure of black leadership, here: no network, no leadership, and a troubling "inside the snow globe" mindset that creates blind spots when they venture beyond their comfort zone. Satisfied with their symbolic if not pyrrhic victory, the group walked away empty-handed while high-fiving and congratulating themselves. Now, two weeks out from Lamborn's reelection, nobody's even talking about this.
This Is Not New: The Tar Baby in political cartoon about Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's decision
to appoint former state attorney general Roland Burris to the Senate seat being vacated by Barack Obama.
Not one word was mentioned at last year's public flogging
of Colorado 5th District Congressman Douglas Lamborn about
Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn's recent remarks,
claiming Obama's "intent is not to destroy, his intent is to
create dependency because it worked so well for him. As an
African-American male," Coburn said, Obama received "tremendous
advantage from a lot of these programs." This was worth
mentioning as an example of how utterly out of touch many
political figures are with the black community, and how harmful
that insensitivity can be. The Senator is presuming Obama's race
created certain advantages for him and assumes the president is
the beneficiary of affirmative action by virtue of his skin
color. Coburn, who was actually defending the president against
histrionic, over-the-top, hate-tinged criticism, actually meant
well, but came across sounding like a racist. The comment and
the assumption were both terribly hurtful. Was Barack Obama the
beneficiary of affirmative action? I can't speak to every detail
of the president's history, but what we are aware of is Barack
Obama was an outstanding student and a dedicated community
activist. I am unaware of any culture of dependency the
president has embraced or of his somehow having benefitted from.
I am reasonably certain the Senator began with the best of
intentions, but started improvising and thus allowing race-based
presumption—that people of color could not possibly rise to the
level Obama has without some form of affirmative action—to
pollute his otherwise laudable dash across party lines in the
Congressman Lamborn was not defending the president when he compared involvement with President Barack Obama's economic policies to, "...being stuck to a tar baby..." but I am not convinced he was personally attacking or even disrespecting the president, either. I think the congressman said something dumb. That should have been his public statement on the matter: "I said something dumb and insensitive. I behaved like an idiot and I apologize." This seems to be the lesson politicians never learn. Early in his term, the president admitted, "I screwed up," when he abruptly abandoned his nomination fight for Tom Daschle and a second major appointee who failed to pay all their taxes. This was a shot heard 'round the world and the most convincing sign that change had indeed come to the White House. One of George W. Bush's most pervasive negatives was his inability to admit a mistake. Obama's impressive humility wowed us, but we've not heard those words again. I'm sure somebody in his communications office scolded the president over that choice of words. The pros are wrong, the president was right: admitting you are human goes a long way with the public.
Congressman Lamborn's remarks have, however, accomplished what I've long considered impossible: a sense of
unity and purpose in the black church community, here. The
congressman, whose remark I received as flip and unscripted
rhetoric, has faced scathing criticism over the term's racist
subtext. Even if the president were not black, "Tar Baby" is an
offensive racial slur which would offend many of Lamborn's
constituents. That the term was juxtaposed to criticism of (if
not directed at) the president only compounds the clumsiness of
the congressman's unfortunate rhetorical direction. Whether
intended or not, the remark can and likely will be received as
revelatory of Lamborn's character, suggesting the congressman
is at least tolerant of such racial disparagement. This serves
only to reinforce racial divisions between conservative rural
Coloradans and the growing black and Latino communities here.
The heated political climate, grown progressively more toxic since Obama's 2008 election win, has created an atmosphere of acceptance of increasingly naked racism, mostly on the part of conservative Republicans and so-called Tea Party members. This is now what passes for normal in Washington: conservative well-off white guys finding as many creative ways to call the sitting president nigger as they can possibly manage. Obama hatred sells, it is in season. The black community routinely does nothing, Obama himself does nothing. There is simply no political price to pay.
As demonstrably incompetent and divisive as President George W. Bush was, the rhetoric directed toward him never reached anywhere near the fever pitch of vileness, incivility and hatred which is routinely directed toward this president. It is in this dank atmosphere that the politically correct gloves come off, with openly and unapologetically racist rhetoric being hurled about at will and going all but completely unchallenged. Never in the history of our nation has a sitting president been treated with less respect and with such brazen and open hostility.
But this is not Doug Lamborn. My racist radar doesn't go off around Lamborn, but I do suspect he doesn't have a whole lot of black friends. He doesn't come across as someone even remotely familiar with his own African American constituents, which can also be our fault: this thing works both ways. I mean, I've never invited the man out for ribs or anything, and frankly, the black community here really has not, to my knowledge, paid Mr. Lamborn any attention at all except to criticize him for doing what everyone in that room has done at some point in their lives: spoken words we wish we could take back.
Lain Shakespeare, Executive Direc-tor of The Wren's Nest, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to preserving the legacy of Joel Chandler Harris and the heritage of African American folklore through story-telling, tours and student publishing, blogged, “First, Representative Doug Lamborn (R-CO) likened the president to a ‘tar baby,'
Then, Pat Buchanan said, ‘Don’t throw me in that briar patch,’ shortly before referring to the President as ‘boy.’ The terms stem from The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story and How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp For Mr. Fox, recorded by Joel Chandler Harris. ‘Tar baby,’ however, has evolved into a derogatory term when used in an insulting way. In fact, its connotation reaches so far and so far afield of its original definition that it’s difficult to say in conversation without whispering. Just so we’re clear — I think Rep. Lamborn’s comment was offensive and intended to be offensive. Enough politicians have used the term (Mitt Romney & John McCain, for instance) that Lamborn knew the whirlwind of criticism and publicity he was entering. It’s shameless to insult President Obama through racist epithets and unfortunate to further hold America’s greatest folklore hostage [to] political rhetoric. (I’m less sure about Buchanan’s bumbling).”