JonBenét Ramsey murder: Would the media have been obsessed with it if she'd been black?

familiar jonbenet image.jpg
JonBenet Ramsey.
Representative Doug Lamborn has learned the very hard way that using a too-colorful term can put a politician in a very sticky situation.

And now I've gotten pulled into the tar baby mess, too.

Two years ago, Ari Armstrong, all-time libertarian and sometime linguist, came to the defense of Jon Caldara, the Independence Institute honcho who got bitch-slapped by the left for using "bitch slap" -- a term that Armstrong pointed out such liberal outlets as, well, Westword had used liberally.

And now Armstrong has done the same for Lamborn and "tar baby," with his "Lamborn strikes the 'Tar Baby' Tar Baby" column, which lists other people, most of them liberals, who have used the term, and challenges David Sirota's suggestion in Salon that "Lamborn's choice of words shows how the fringe right is mainstreaming racist language."

Armstrong writes:

What's amazing about the phrase "tar baby" (as others have noted) is that in today's world of political character assassination a politician strikes a tar baby merely by uttering the phrase.

Just ask Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn. As of the moment of this writing, the top Google hit for "tar baby" is a USA Today article, "GOP lawmaker apologizes to Obama for 'tar baby' remark."

Here's what he actually said regarding the debt-ceiling debate, reports the Denver Post's Allison Sherry: "Now, I don't even want to be associated with him. It's like touching a, a tar baby and you get it... you know you're stuck, and you're part of the problem now, and you can't get away."

....No doubt the term "tar baby" has been used by some with racist intent. But obviously Lamborn does not fall in that category. And lots of ordinary words and phrases have been used to convey bigotry, but that doesn't mean we must eradicate all that language. Rather, we should seek to eradicate the underlying bigotry, where it exists.

A "tar baby" in its oldest and widest use means simply something that entraps you if you start to fight or mess with it. It is now the perfect self-referential phrase....

Over at the left-leaning Westword, the term has been used by Alan Prendergast (and again) and editor Patricia Calhoun...

Armstrong cites my use of "tar baby" in "What a Circus!," my July 26, 2001 column that bitch-slapped Boulder for getting mired in the then-five-year-old JonBenét saga.

Here's an excerpt from that column: politically correct Boulder, there's no animal more exotic than a tar baby. And JonBenét Ramsey, the little girl who would have turned eleven next month if she'd been guarded more closely, just won't go away. "Once you touch this case, you're stuck," says Dan Caplis, the talk-show attorney who recently acquired his first legal connection to the case.

"It sticks to everyone it touches," says Tom Miller, a former attorney who just got out of his legal connection to the case. "There's, like, this slime."

Context counts. I used "tar baby" in the "sticky situation" sense of the term -- which evolved from a story that Joseph Campbell traces back to centuries ago in India. But had JonBenét Ramsey been black, I would have thought twice about using the term "tar baby" in connection with the case, because the racist connotation would inevitably have come up. (By the same token, I'll avoid using "calling a spade a spade" in certain columns.)

Evidence suggests that Lamborn did not think before he uttered the words "tar baby" while discussing America's first African-American president with Craig Silverman. But what does Lamborn really think... when he does?

As for my use of "tar baby" in that column, no, I wouldn't have used the term if JonBenét Ramsey had been black. But that raises another question, one that points out why these conversations about racism in this country are always useful, if painful: If JonBenét had been a little black girl, would the case still have become a national obsession?

That's a media tar baby.

More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Fallene Wells showcases "puking clown" on Project Runway, but she's not clowning around."

Sponsor Content

My Voice Nation Help

Are you fucking serious? 


Would OJ have gotten away with it if he wasn't black?

Ari Armstrong
Ari Armstrong

Patricia Calhoun is quite correct that context matters. That's why it's so important to point out that the tar baby comes from African folklore. Moreover, Lamborn was definitely not referring to Obama as a tar baby, but to the debt-ceiling negotiations (note the terms "problem" and "stuck"). For more background, please see Thanks, -Ari Armstrong


I think we have bigger issues to concern ourselves with these days.

Vill Robinson
Vill Robinson

Really? THE Ari Armstrong, who openly advocates for abolishing the food stamp program would defend a racial smear by a right-wing politician? Shocking. Equally shocking that in typical Armstrong fashion he would attempt to do so with a verbose screed that does not provide a single example of a white person using the term "tar baby" to refer to a specific black person, as Lamborn did. As always, a fucking asshole. 

Brian Martinez
Brian Martinez

I don't think it would have made much difference what race or ethnicity the Ramseys were.  The most compelling elements of the JonBenet story had to do with the family's wealth and social status (and Patsy's apparent obsession with beauty pageants).  But most of all the murder continues to interest people because it has not been solved, thanks to the incompetency of Boulder police and DA's office.

Note that the Aarone Thompson case generated a great deal of media interest too, at least until her father's conviction.


That was a case of the LAPD framing a guilty man and getting burned for it.

The planted glove was poorly presented as evidence, and even the DNA of Simpson's blood at the scene was suspect to the jury after that.

A long history of abuse by the legal system was thrown back in L.A. County's face with that verdict.

Mark Fuhrman was probably the most culpable in that mess. To this day he remains resolutely unapologetic for planting evidence, lying under oath, and screwing up an investigation to a point where a murderer walked, justice was denied a grieving family and a nation was torn apart over racial injustice.

It's definiely no mere coincidence that he's a regular "faux news contributor".

Simpson got his in the end. He'll never walk and that's a good thing.

Too bad the same isn't true for Fuhrman.,

Vill Robinson
Vill Robinson

You idiot. Lamborn's quote, emphasis added: “Now I don’t want to even have to be associated with HIM. It’s like touching a, a tar baby and you, you get it, you know you’re stuck and you’re part of the problem now and you can’t get away. I don’t want that to happen to us, but if it does, or not, HE'll still get properly sowed the blame, because HIS policies for four years will have failed the American people.”

Lamborn clearly was referring personally to the President, otherwise he would have said "I don't want to even have to be associated with his policies. They're like touching a tar baby..." 

Save the misinformation for the geniuses who read your blog, it doesn't fly here.


Really?!?  African folklore?  Of the three thousand native languages of Africa, please provide ONE example of how the term "tar baby" appears in that language.

I call bullshit.  "Tar Baby" is a white man's term.  I love it when racist apologists (and "part time linguists") start twisting and digging deeper.  Keep it up.  Some of that Lamborn shit has a tendency to spray on those rallying to defend the indefensible.

Now Trending

Denver Concert Tickets

From the Vault