Niggardly Tar Baby Criticism

Dan Froomkin notes that the press corps was downright niggardly in criticism over Tony Snow’s use of the racist term “tar baby” in a press conference yesterday, noting that he “He got away almost scot-free using a term — ‘tar baby’ — that many consider racist.”

Now, many consider the use of the term “scot free,” which they mistakenly think a term of derision for people from Scotland, offensive. So, really, Froomkin is just a pot calling the kettle black. Plus, as Stephen Spruiell explains, Froomkin is being rather niggardly in his fealty to the 1st Amendment.

This whole thing reminds me of a classic 1999 column from William Raspberry.

Boy, where could you go with that one? Would Christmas carolers be charged with homophobia for singing “Don we now our gay apparel”? Can our kitchens no longer be spic and span? Are we forbidden to sing doo-wop, lest we expose the chink in our armor?

A smart-aleck black friend of mine used to refer to those little mites that burrow into your skin and itch like the devil as “cheegroes.” I thought it was funny.

Later in the piece, he counsels us “not to be so quick on the treegro” in these situations. It’s good advice.

FILED UNDER: LGBTQ Issues, Race and Politics, Uncategorized, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bill K says:

    I think is is massive hubris for you to make this argument. Clearly tar baby and scot-free are in totally different realms of offensivness.

    Yes, by definition, Snow could be considered fine, as can you with the constant use of niggardly, but the point is there is no reason to use the words and they are clearly offensive to some, if not most, Americans.

    At some points words social connotation outweigh their true definition. But, you clearly know that. It is evident in your word choice in this post.

  2. BigFire says:

    If you’re looking to be offended, you’ll be offended. If your ignorance of a phrase cause you to be offended, perhaps you should get some education?

  3. legion says:

    I understood immediately what Snow meant when he used the “t-word” 🙂 although I was unsurprised to see some take offense.

    But someone who’s supposed to be the public voice of the US gov’t probably ought to be a little more careful in his word choice – if anything, he’s got even more eyes on his every move now that he did at Fox, and he’s supposed to be representing Bush to us, and us to the world. I’m not saying he’s a bad man, but I’m just sayin’…

  4. Steve Verdon says:

    Yes, by definition, Snow could be considered fine, as can you with the constant use of niggardly, but the point is there is no reason to use the words and they are clearly offensive to some, if not most, Americans.

    So spoke Bill K. the Outside The Beltway’s Political Correctness Monitor. Sheesh, Bill buy a dictionary and look up the word niggardly.

  5. Gollum says:


    Toni Morrison has a different view about tar babies.

    According to Morrison, the “tar baby” of Southern folklore originates from a myth of a “tar lady” in ancient Africa. She was originally a powerful symbol of black womanhood. For Morrison, the tar lady is a black woman who holds things together; she is a builder and cohesive force. [Says Morrison:] “At one time, a tar pit was a holy place, at least an important place, because tar was used to build things. It came naturally out of the earth; it held together things like Moses’s little boat and the pyramids.”

    Ray Nagin, on the other hand, buried the executive director of the New Orleans Planning Department after an incident remarkably similar to Tony Snow’s:

    [Verl] Emrick spent only one day as the executive director after using the phrase “tar baby” during his first meeting with some planning commission employees. According to reports, several commission staff members became upset when Emrick said “I’ve got to grab the tar baby by the ears and jump right in.”

    So I guess the question is, which paradigm should we cultivate as a society? The one that thoughtfully explores history and myth, that gives soulful appreciation to the deep meanings of stories as they relate to and shape our humanity? Or the one that calls for a priggish, shallow, knee-jerk response that affirms a hateful cooption of cultural identity?

    Snow should apologize for an inartful choice of words. And black leaders should capitalize on the media attention to tell the tar lady story the way it is supposed to be told. Shrilly calling for Snow’s resignation will do nothing more than affirm and perpetuate the white racist version of the story.

  6. May says:

    Imperial Hubris was a retiring CIA guy who wanted to write a book. Massive Hubris?

  7. John Burgess says:

    I’m perfectly willing to adjust the register of my vocabulary to “fit” the audiences I address.

    The White House Press Corps, however, is at least as well-educated as I. I’ll bet most of them hold advanced degrees, in fact. There is no reason (or certainly ought not to be any reason) to talk down to them. Or maybe that PC in “Press Corp” really means the other “PC”?

    If someone who is supposed to be smart acts like a moron, then they can be treated like a moron. The DC City Council complainant was simply ignorant–as most of the DC City Council staff are. Perhaps an argument can be made that David Howard (the DC “offender”) should have pitched his vocabulary to address ill-educated louts. But screwing somebody over because he has a better vocabulary is a little harsh.

    Bill K: Instead of me having to act stupid to suit your druthers, how about if you get smart to meet mine? Any reason I should dumb myself down for you?

  8. Bill K says:

    I know the definition of niggardly. I know that in the realm of politics and hollywood, which this website (which I read daily) covers, such a word could be thrown around daily, if not hourly.

    The fact is, it isn’t. And, it isn’t used for reason. This site has over 14000 posts and spans more than three years, the fact that a word with defintions such as:

    Grudging and petty in giving or spending


    Meanly small; scanty or meager

    has only been used in two posts speaks to that.

    I am not personally offended by either Snow’s or James’ comment, but I think it is ridiculous to believe that some wouldn’t be. To mock that reaction from them, knowing where the feeling eminates from, is beneath any of the very intelligent and likeable personalities that post at this site and routinely fill the comments section.

  9. Bill K says:


    I didn’t read your full comment previously so forgive me for not addressing it in my last note.

    If you think using the term tar baby properly in a sentence is a sign of intellect, you are way off. I always thought the best approach to communication was having a vocabulary that allowed you to state your point in many different way. Which way you was dependent on your audience and subject matter.

    Now, in this case, Snow dug back and used a technically correct phrase, yet at least 50% of the people that hear about this will have zero idea about what the original subject of the conversation was. Would you call that effective communication?

  10. bains says:

    Now, in this case, Snow dug back and used a technically correct phrase, yet at least 50% of the people that hear about this will have zero idea about what the original subject of the conversation was. Would you call that effective communication?

    That, Bill, is a good observation. Yet too often it is cast aside for the more incendiary accusation – as you did at first. And that is what frustrates, or worse, steels your debate opponents.

    Was Tony Snow’s word choice impolitic? Yes. Is it reason to crucify, or scorn? Absolutely not.

  11. wavemaker says:

    “at least 50% of the people that hear about this will have zero idea about what the original subject of the conversation was” What da heck are you talkin about Bill K?

    And why is it relevant that you’ve found the term used twice in 140000 posts? Are you suggesting that it isn’t used because people “know” it’s inappropriate? Nonsense.

    How about that it’s just a tad arcane?

    And Snow is talking to the top echelon of professional journalists (WHPC), fa gawds sake — they’re supposed to be super-literate. You think they didn’t know exactly what he meant?

  12. Boyd says:

    Wavemaker, I think you’re conflating the two different terms: Snow’s (“tar baby”) and Joyner’s (“niggardly”).

    I think Bill K’s argument is undermined by the fact (not my contention or opinion, but a fact) that while “tar baby” has been used as a part of a racist phrase, “niggardly” does not now and never has reflected racism.

    Let’s put it this way: “tar baby” is only offensive if one has heard the entire racist phrase, i.e., one has more knowledge; “niggardly” only generates that response through ignorance.

  13. CC says:

    The REAL question is why we bother discussing and debating issues such as this on a regular basis? Tony Snow ISN’T a racist, no moreso than Bill Bennett. But there’s no sweeter trap for liberals than catching a conservative with a poorly contextualized statement that can be reconstructed into a 5 second sound bite. It gives them the opportunity to pander to their base constituency and guilt others with the “white man’s burden” act. If you’re white and don’t play along with the show, then SI groups can label you racist too, if only by association. The whole damn thing is one big put on, so why bother talking about it?

    And yes, I realize that simply by making the statements I just made, somebody will read them and either assume or define me racist, which I’m not. I just hate to see the issue of race, which is truly important in this country even today, be exploited for political reasons rather than debated and explored for genuine solutions. I think back to the Trent Lott experience a few years ago, and there’s a perfect example of using race to all but destroy a guy’s political career–and for what? Because he showed up and said some nice things at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party? The dude was like 115 years old. Why wouldn’t Lott show his respect?

  14. BJ says:

    To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Racists is as Racist does”.

    Anyone who says “The dirty little secret is that there is no racism anymore — no on preaches it or supports it” and then uses the term tar-baby when it is clearly considered a taboo phrase should be flogged. Especially when the man is in charge of propaganda (oh sorry — dissemination of information) for the White House.

    As for the 5 second sound bite — it went on for more than 120 seconds with his defending and futher defending his idea that “we could abort all black babies in order to reduce crime”.

    An I cannot think of anyone more of a bigot in recent memory than Bill Bennet — unless it is Barbara Bush.