Is It Time To Boycott Haley Barbour Over His ‘Tar Babies’ Remarks?

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What do Airbus Group, the American Health Care Association (a lobby group for hospitals and nursing homes), Amgen, Eli Lilly, and GalaxoSmithKline (drug companies), the Asian Pacific American Chamber of Commerce, Caesars Entertainment (a gambling casino outfit), the Canadian National Railway, Caterpillar (the farm equipment manufacturer), Chevron (the oil giant and America’s third largest corporation), Consumer Electronics Association (an industry lobby), JetBlue Airways, Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance, Mortgage Insurance Companies of America, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (a union), PhRMA (the drug industry lobby), Raytheon (the giant defense contractor), the Republic of India, the State of Kazakhstan, Toyota, the University of Mississippi, the University of Florida, Xerox Corporation, the cities of Waukesha, Wisconsin, Johnsburg, Illinois, and Winter Park, Florida, and DuPage County, Illinois, have in common?

They are all clients of the BGR Group, the powerful lobbying firm headed by Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and former Governor of Mississippi. They are among the many organizations who hired Barbour and BGR to wield political influence in Congress and in state capitals. Barbour co-founded BGR in 1991 to draw on his extensive network of political contacts to lobby on behalf of a wide range of clients, especially the oil industry, drug companies, defense contractors, the tobacco industry, and nursing homes and hospitals. BGR’s offices are located three blocks from the White House.

Last year, BGR’s clients paid the firm $14.6 million to lobby on their behalf, according the Center for Responsive Politics, where you can find a list of BGR’s clients.

But now BGR’s clients are confronted with a dilemma: Do they want a racist to represent them?

Barbour is not a subtle racist who makes bigoted jokes among friends in the privacy of his office, his home, and the golf course. He’s an outright in-your-face racist who has made a series of offensive comments in interviews that provoked controversy and required Barbour to defend himself or apologize. The most recent incident occurred last Thursday, when Barbour described President Barack Obama’s policies as “tar babies” during an hour long conference call with more than 100 BRG clients.

It is time for a Boycott Barbour movement. Customers and members of BRG’s clients should put pressure on those corporations, trade associations, cities, and one labor union to fire BGR as their lobbyist. And elected politicians and government officials should to refuse to meet with BGR lobbyists as long as Barbour is on its payroll.

Of course, some of those politicians and corporate executives may share Barbour’s racist views. But many of them surely find them as offensive as the BRG clients who were sufficiently offended by Barbour’s remarks on their conference call to leak the story to Politico.

Barbour’s defenders will claim that “tar baby” has two different meanings. It was originally popularized by writer Joel Chandler Harris’ 19th Century Uncle Remus stories in which the character Br’er Fox creates a doll out of tar to ensnare his nemesis, Br’er Rabbit. From that story, “tar baby” refers to a difficult situation that gets worse the more you try to solve it. A number of Republican politicians — including Mitt Romney, Senator John McCain, Congress members Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota and Doug Lamborn of Colorado, and Virginia state Sen. Frank Ruff — have gotten ensnared in controversy when they used the phrase in that way because it also has another meaning that anyone growing up in the South, like Barbour, understands. “Tar baby” is well-known as a racist slur about African-Americans.

That’s why Barbour immediately apologized after admitting that he used the term. “If someone takes offense, I regret it,” Barbour said. But, of course, that’s, at best, a half apology. He’s not acknowledging that what he said was racist. He’s putting the burden on those who might find it offensive. For those who don’t find the phrase offensive, Barbour is saying it’s no big deal.

If this were Barbour’s only brush with racism, he could be forgiven for this “gaffe,” as TPM called his comments. But Barbour has a history of making racist “gaffes,” and then trying to twist their meaning to avoid taking responsibility for his ugly remarks.

In 1982, Barbour reprimanded an aide who had made a racist remark, but his comments revealed that his staffer wasn’t the only bigot in the room. Barbour said that if the aide “persisted in racist remarks, he would be reincarnated as a watermelon and placed at the mercy of blacks,” according to The Daily Beast.

In 2011, while serving as Mississippi governor and weighing a potential campaign for president, Barbour refused to denounce attempts to create a special Mississippi license plate honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, a confederate general, slave trader and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard. “I don’t go around denouncing people,” Barbour told reporters at the time.

Barbour grew up in Yazoo, Mississippi in the 1950s and ’60s, during the height of the southern civil rights movement. Yazoo was a hotbed of civil rights activism. In 2010, asked about growing up in the midst of Jim Crow segregation, Barbour told the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine: “I just don’t remember it as being that bad.”

Recalling that era, Barbour couldn’t bring himself to criticize the White Citizens Councils, the network of white supremacist organizations formed in 1954 to oppose racial integration after the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation violated the Constitution. The Councils, which had chapters throughout the South, used intimidation tactics (including economic boycotts and threats of violence against civil-rights activists) to support segregation. Any white businessperson or professional who appeared to support racial integration would be a target for the Council’s blacklist. The Councils resorted to violence and threats of violence to force African Americans involved in civil rights movement to move out of town.

Because many of its members were middle class businesspersons, elected officials, and the country club set, the Council was sometimes viewed as the so-called “respectable” alternative to the more flamboyant and secretive Ku Klux Klan.

That’s apparently how Barbour still sees it, even a half century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, both of which the White Citizens Council vehemently opposed. In his 2010 interview with the Weekly Standard, Barbour actually characterized the group as a force for good. He referred to the White Citizens Council as simply “an organization of town leaders” and praised it for keeping the KKK out of Yazoo City.

Barbour defended the White Citizens Council, remarking: “In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there.”

In other words, Barbour supports the idea of using economic pressure, including a boycott, to stop those whose ideas and practices one finds offensive.

Those who find Barbour’s history of racist comments hateful and insulting should follow that advice and stop doing business with BGR.

Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).

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