Stearns County commissioner: "I screwed up"by Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
A Stearns County commissioner is being criticized for his choice of words at a recent public meeting. Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier described the St. Cloud Human Rights Office as a "tar baby." Lenzmeier says he used the term to describe a "sticky" situation. But some leaders of the African American community have complained, saying the phrase is also considered a racial slur.
St. Cloud, Minn. — Lenzmeier has learned a lot about the term "tar baby" since he used it last week in a public meeting.
Lenzmeier used it to describe talk of the St. Cloud Human Rights Office expanding their jurisdiction to the entire county.
"From my experience 'tar baby' would mean a sticky situation. I didn't know that it was also in some folks experience a racial slur," he says.
Lenzmeier's use of the phrase to describe a sticky situation is technically correct. Here's one dictionary definition, it's "a situation or problem from which it is virtually impossible to disentangle oneself."
St. Cloud State University ethnic studies professor Christopher Lehman, says the phrase comes from a series of stories from a turn-of-the-century author.
"One of the short stories that Joel Chandler Harris wrote in his collection of short stories having to do with the fictional slave character, Uncle Remus, was about Brer Rabbit, getting entangled in this tar-baby trap. This baby figure being made completely out of tar and the more Brer Rabbit struggled to get himself out of the tar-baby trap, the more entangled he became inside of it," according to Lehman.
But Lehman says over the years, "tar baby" has also been used as a racial slur. And because of that, unless you're telling the story of Brer Rabbit, it's wise to avoid the term.
"I would say, because of the connotations, that it has as a racial slur; it would be one phrase that should be avoided unless your talking about the Joel Chandler Harris story, in and of itself," Lehman says.
Leaders from St. Cloud's African American community, including the NAACP, were the ones that told Lenzmeier of the term's racial overtones. And they demanded an apology.
At first Lenzmeier said he didn't know that the phrase had racist connotations and promised never to use it again, but stopped short of an official apology.
But when contacted by phone at his City Hall office, St. Cloud Human Rights Director Baba Odukale had just received the mea culpa from Lenzmeier he'd been hoping for.
"He actually just wrote a letter of apology to me that I have in front of me that was wrote and signed to me about 45 minutes ago," according to Odukale.
Odukale was actually at last week's meeting when Lenzmeier used the term "tar baby." Odukale says he didn't hear Lenzmeier use the phrase, or he would have addressed the issue then. And while Lenzmeier has apologized, Odukale says it should not have taken eight days for that to happen.
"Unfortunately if Commissioner Lenzmeier would have finished this letter a lot earlier, this issue wouldn't have been as big as it is now," Odukale says.
Leigh Lenzmeier says he's learned a lesson about language, and he's offering the simplest statement he can to explain what happened.
"The more complicated you make it, the less sincere it sounds. The punch line is: you just say, 'hey, I screwed up, I apologize," Lenzmeier says.
Lenzmeier isn't alone in this public lesson on language and racial sensitivity. In the last year, public officials in Pennsylvania, Texas and Louisiana have publicly used the term "tar baby" to describe a sticky situation, only to create a sticky situation of their own.
- All Things Considered, 03/29/2006, 5:48 p.m.