A Virginia state senator who referred to the problem of expanding Medicaid in the state as a “tar baby” said Wednesday that he didn’t mean anything “racial” by the term.
The Virginian-Pilot reported that state Sen. Frank Ruff (R) used the disputed term while arguing against taking federal funds to expand Medicaid at a Tuesday breakfast meeting for the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber Of Commerce.
The newspaper noted that “tar baby” has its roots in the post-reconstruction South with the Uncle Remus collection of black folklore tales. While it can be perceived as a racial slur, it’s also come to mean a “sticky situation.”
Ruff told the Virginian-Pilot that he thought the phrase meant nothing more than that, and said he “meant nothing racial … at all.”
Some of those present at the meeting felt otherwise. Danville City Councilman John Gilstrap told the Virginian-Pilot he thought it “was not a correct statement to make” and said that Danville Mayor Sherman Saunders, who is black, left the meeting after Ruff’s remark upset him.
Ruff told the newspaper he later called Sherman and left a message to apologize. The Virginia Democratic Party called for an apology from Ruff as well.
A number of political figures, from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Bush spokesman Tony Snow to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), have apologized for using the same phrase in the past. The New Republic made the case in 2011 that people often “reach for this useful metaphor, within the rapid and subconscious activity that speaking entails, unaware that some consider it to have a second meaning as a slur.”
h/t Huffington Post
Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.