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Published: Sunday, 1/14/2007

Editorial on Ford raises question of racial sensitivity

President Ford's death last month led to a seemingly odd question: Was the editorial The Blade ran marking his life and career .•.•. racist?

Wes Fahrbach, director of the Sandusky County Economic Development Corp., wondered if it was "a racist writing the editorial, a politically insensitive conservative author, or does the whole editorial board who let it pass need classes in racial sensitivity?"

Here's the portion that bothered him:

"Mr. Nixon had assumed that replacing the disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew with the comparatively bland Mr. Ford would be insurance against impeachment. He was wrong. Even so, the Nixon tar baby clung to Mr. Ford. A month after taking office he pardoned the ex-president, immediately dissipating much of the good will derived from his handling of the White House changeover."

The reader's problem was the term "tar baby." Last August, this term, which stems from an old bit of American folklore, was used by Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney about the Big Dig, the accident-plagued highway construction project in Boston. Mr. Romney, a Republican who is testing out a presidential run, was jumped on by black leaders for supposed racial insensitivity.

Earlier in the year, Tony Snow, President Bush's press secretary, was pounced on because he used the term. The New York Times, the world's most influential newspaper, wrote then that tar baby "is used as a metaphor for a sticky situation, but for some it also carries vague racist connotations .•.•. Most politicians and TV commentators prefer to avoid tar baby references."

What really irks Mr. Fahrbach was what he perceives as a double standard. He thinks The Blade would have gleefully attacked some conservative politician who used "tar baby" but is happy to use it for its own purposes.

"Is this another example of a press double standard - do as we say, not as we do?" he asks.

Well, let's look at the facts. The term "tar baby" comes from an 1881 "Uncle Remus" story written by author Joel Chandler Harris. Br'er Fox uses a tar-coated doll to snare B'rer Rabbit, who gets stuck to it. But the rabbit outwits the fox by getting him to throw him into a briar patch.

Rabbits are comfortable in briar patches, and he avoids becoming dinner and easily gets away. The stories are written in dialect and not much read today.

The term "tar baby" may in fact have been used later as a derogatory term for African-Americans. But that's not how it was in the original stories at all. They are based on ancient African-American oral tradition, in which the trickster rabbit usually outwits his tormentors. If anything, the folk stories make the alleged "black" characters appear smarter than the supposed "white" ones.

Indeed, some whites objected to them at the time. Today, the stories are controversial, partly because they are written in what most readers today would find an objectionable dialect. Some African-Americans today des-pise the Uncle Remus stories; others embrace them as a valuable part of black heritage.

So did The Blade make a mistake in using the term "tar baby' in the Gerald Ford editorial? I frankly don't have a problem with it - in this context.

Whatever you think about Gerald Ford's pardoning of Richard Nixon, race had nothing to do with it. Nor did any African-Americans have anything to do with Watergate, except for the security guard who discovered the break-in and called the police. Nonfiction writers through the ages have used literary examples as metaphors; "tar baby" and "briar patch" are widely understood contexts.

Sadly, tar baby has taken on a secondary meaning, and today it would have been poor judgment to use the term in any context where it could be misconstrued.

But there should be a limit to how far we allow the language to be hijacked for reasons of political correctness.

As an interesting footnote, racially inappropriate language did help doom Gerald Ford's presidency, but tar babies had nothing to do with it. His secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, made an extremely off-color and racist remark during the 1976 campaign.

Mr. Butz was fired after two - and only two - papers printed the full text of his remark. One was the Madison Capital Times in Wisconsin. The other was The Blade.

President Ford narrowly lost both Ohio and Wisconsin. Had he carried them, he would have been re-elected.

Anyone with a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade; 541 North Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660, or at my Detroit office: 189 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me, at 1-888-746-8610 or e-mail me at OMBLADE@aol.com.

I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply.



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