“No matter what I do from here on in, I will always be labeled as the Tar Baby Lady.”

- Clara Denise West, Ph.D., Redstone Arsenal

White managers at one of the nation’s most sensitive military installations routinely assault Black employees with an archaic racial epithet, undermining even the pretense of unified national resolve in the “War on Terror.”  At Huntsville, Alabama’s Redstone Arsenal, a military and civilian culture holds sway that seems to revel in the language of unrelenting war against the humanity and dignity of African Americans.

What do they call a Black Ph.D. at Redstone?  Tar Baby.

The installation is the heart of the U.S. Army’s precision guided munitions systems, home to the Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM), Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC), Army Corps of Engineers, Program Executive Offices (PEO) and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

The place might as well be decorated with lawn jockeys.  A female African American specializing in the purchase of Patriot missiles described the “good old boy system” that prevails at Redstone as “a direct threat to our national security.”

Since the events of September 11, a National Guard unit comprised of locals from surrounding north Alabama towns has secured the perimeter of the base, alert to the threat from alien enemies.  The more serious danger to military readiness, however, lies within.  African American employees, among them weapons experts at the highest levels of training and security clearance, feel besieged by a systemic racism that also damages Redstone’s high tech military mission.

Blacklisting, Reprisals and Insults

Two years ago, African Americans and non-Black whistle blowers banded together under the leadership of RAM, the Redstone Area Minority Employees Association.  Joined by the NAACP, RAM has called for a congressional investigation into racial practices at the installation, including discrimination in promotions and assignments, unjust firings, illegal retaliation against whistleblowers, and rampant blacklisting of employees who dare to file grievances.

The military brass and civilian managers have conceded virtually nothing.  Instead, Blacks find themselves confronted with the sudden resurrection of a term most had not heard since childhood.

RAM’s May 20 press release detailed three separate incidents in which military and civilian managers invoked the Uncle Remus character, a silent, sticky Black female made of tar.

May 20, 2002 News Release:


 Verbal outrage part of pattern of racism and corruption, minorities charge

"This is the rocket capital of the world, the home of Americas’ weapons of the future,” said RAM Executive Director Matthew Fogg. “But minority employees still have to struggle with obscene prejudices and insults that should have been left in the past after we defeated Jim Crow.” African Americans at Redstone “are afraid of reprisals if they speak out against discrimination”, said Fogg, also a Chief deputy U.S. Marshal. “The racial atmosphere is hostile.”

Fogg said he is in possession of an April 16 2002 email, written by a US Army GS-14 manager, that openly describes an African American woman Information Assurance (IA) officer as a Tar-baby”.   The target of the epithet holds a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering.

The scientist in question is Dr. Clara Denise West, a single mother of two who has earned four degrees, including the doctorate.  “It’s been hard and it’s embarrassing,” she told BC, “because no matter what I do from here on in, I will always be labeled as the Tar Baby Lady.” 

The maddening fact is, had Dr. West sat silently—like the gooey pitch doll popularized in Joel Chandler Harris’ Brer Rabbit series, back in 1878 —the label might not have traveled beyond her office.  Muteness was a theoretical option.  Indeed, management seemed surprised when she refused to accept having insult piled upon injury.

Dr. West is certain she was already on a “blacklist” when the offending email arrived in her Aviation and Missile Command computer, this spring.  She’s been on the wrong side of the good old boys at Redstone since 1998, when she charged the brass with unfairly denying her a promotion.  At the time, West was the only Black female engineering Ph.D. at the installation. 

A hearing ruled in Dr. West’s favor, but the agency’s appeal is still pending, leaving her “sitting at a desk all day long with no job to do, sending out emails,” she said.  “I didn’t need any more than a high school diploma to send out email.”

As a result of the years of enforced idleness, there has been little to report in Dr. West’s performance appraisals, the documents that are the basis for future promotion.  “Yeah, she’s blacklisted, her career is over,” West heard one of her white colleagues remark shortly after her grievance was filed.  He seemed pleased, she recalls.

Confirming the proverbial banality of evil, the April email from West’s supervisor started off as a routine inter-office communication.  However, the final sentence of the message, written to a fellow supervisor and copied to Dr. West, reads like a weird hybrid of modern office-speak and Dixie trash-talk:

I would like to get out of the loop once you get update from Ms West.  Now that you are back from TDY, I would really like to hand the IA tarbaby back to you!

It suddenly dawned on Dr. West, the nominal Information Assurance Officer, or IA:  She was the “tarbaby”. 

The under-utilized engineer is also President of RAM.  It didn’t take her long to discover that Tar Baby had recently been rescued from linguistic extinction at other Redstone offices.  The good old boys had re-minted an old slur. 

“It’s as if you called an Italian, ‘Mafia,’” said Dr. West.  “It carries the same connotation.”

The truth is a lot harsher than that, maybe too painful for some victims to fully internalize. Tar Baby is definitely not the equivalent of Mafia.  Mafiosi are men—often powerful, decisive men.  Some are very rich men.  Whatever their vices, they are viewed by other men as human beings. 

There is no white equivalent of Tar Baby.  America reserves its subhuman slurs for Blacks and Indians.

Tar Babies are racist inventions, conjured up for the purpose of dehumanizing African Africans.  It matters not one bit that Uncle Remus tales have roots in African folklore.  Slavery reduced Africans to chattel, conveniences available to serve white people’s purposes.  Over the centuries, white Americans have made full use of these privileges. 

Robert Chandler Harris earned lots of money from the Tar Baby, the only non-animal (yet also non-human) inhabitant of Brer Rabbit’s world. 

At some point during the last two years, in the course of conversations that non-whites can only imagine, a number of Redstone managers decided that the Brer Rabbit tale fit their office situations, precisely.  Tar Baby was reborn.

Webster’s second definition of Tar Baby is, “something from which it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself.”  At Redstone Arsenal, a Tar Baby is a Black person you can’t get rid of. 

Dr. West remains at her post, although the good old boys have rendered her decades of training and study all but useless to the War on Terror. 

“I was working on a document for the Army on cybernetic warfare,” West recalls.  “The whole field of terrorism has opened up a lot of avenues and opportunities for people to bring in different ideas on how to address the problem.  But if you are not allowed to contribute, even if you have something to contribute, it’s not going to happen.  And this is by design.” 

The U.S. Army sacrifices national security assets—like Dr. West—in favor of petty, local, racist employment arrangements.  It seems that nothing is more precious than a white man’s position at the top.  This is the “civilization” we are called upon to defend against foreign “evil-doers.”  All the while, domestic racists busily undermine the national defense apparatus.

Hi-Tech Heart of Dixie

Huntsville is the seat of Madison County, nestled on the Tennessee River among rolling hills and picturesque lakes, just below the Tennessee border.  Most whites and many Blacks like to think of northern Alabama as a world apart from the Black Belt to the south, although the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified numerous white supremacist groups with headquarters and post office boxes in surrounding towns.  Scottsboro, site of the infamous 1930s rape trials, is 35 miles away.  Cullman, where the National Guard unit assigned to Huntsville is located, has a history of Klan activity.

Before Redstone arrived, Huntsville was a mill town distinguished only by its segregated Black college, Alabama A&M.  The U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service built a plant at the edge of town during World War Two, followed by an artillery shell facility.  In 1950, a white school that would become a campus of the University of Alabama set up shop. 

Fueled by the Cold War, the arsenal grew into a crown jewel of the military industrial complex.  Today, there is no site more crucial to U.S. development of smart weaponry, the bombs and missiles on which soldiers scrawl the names Saddam and Osama.

Two thirds of Huntsville’s 160,000 residents are white, about 30% Black, with small numbers of Hispanics and Asians.  The U.S. Army runs the arsenal, but civilian managers form a kind of parallel command structure.  By most African American accounts, the good old boy network reigns, indivisible, in and out of uniform. 

Rev. John Clay used to work at the arsenal, beginning back in the late Sixties.  As President of the Greater Huntsville Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, Rev. Clay speaks circumspectly.  At times he sounds like a city booster; in the next breath, he’s a critic of the racial status quo.

Life for Blacks in Huntsville “may be better than in most” southern cities, said the Reverend—definitely “not as bad as it used to be.”  Chrysler and GM have plants in the county, and Toyota’s facility will soon begin production. 

Redstone remains the area’s dominant influence, however.  Blacks, who make up 20% of the arsenal’s 5,600 employees, are especially dependent on Army paychecks.

Rev. Clay wistfully remembers the early Seventies.  “There was an EEO agenda [at Redstone] that was enforced, then,” he said.  Nowadays, “discrimination is harder to prove.”  The minister dates the backsliding to the Reagan period.

Clay complains that graduates of historically Black Alabama A&M “don’t get the kind of recognition” at Redstone as do professionalsfrom the city’s mostly white state university.  But, because of the arsenal, he says, many African Americans can afford spacious homes in the town and its suburbs.  “There are no slums in Huntsville,” Rev. Clay declares, emphatically.

“Huntsville has been described as one of the most segregated cities in the South,” says Alice Sams, president of the Huntsville – Madison County NAACP.  She confirms that Old South housing conditions have disappeared from the city, but charges that white newcomers are routinely steered away from the northwest, Black side of town.  “Race relations are not very good,” she maintains, especially at Redstone.

Sams is a person of influence both on and off government property.  An employee of the Marshall Space Flight Center, she was recently elected president of the American Federation of Government Employees local.  “Diversity is not important to the government,” she said.  “There’s a culture there that African Americans just don’t matter.  We’re not even considered, in terms of bringing us into the fold.”

Does racial discrimination have any impact on military readiness?   “Any time they can get us off of a critical mission, they’ll do it,” said the union leader and civil rights activist.  “It’s a systemic problem.”  Blacks with sensitive skills and intensive training are particular targets of the good old boys. 

Sams’ sister, Ruby Blackburn, fits that bill.  With 25 years in government service and a masters degree in systems engineering, Ms. Blackburn works for Program Executive Office for Tactical Missiles.  She does not have a history of filing grievances.  Her close encounter with the Tar Baby came in May, a month after Dr. West’s humiliation.  She, too, had not heard the epithet uttered since childhood.  Unlike West, Blackburn’s tormentor was military, a colonel.

The incident occurred during a staff meeting.  Afterwards, Blackburn fired off an email:

At the meeting on Friday morning, you made the comment, "I don't want the tar baby pinned on me."  I was the only African American in the room at the time of your comment.   I feel it was inappropriate, disrespectful, demeaning, offensive and a racial slur.  The remark caused me emotional turmoil and was very upsetting.  This remark highlights the need for sensitivity training of all managers on cultural and racial awareness.

“It shocked me that that it came out of his mouth,” said Ms. Blackburn, referring to Colonel Craig Naudain.  “When he said it, I had my head down, reading.  I’m surprised I didn’t drop something.  This is 2002.  I was extremely upset.”

Blackburn later brought an NAACP representative (not her sister) to a meeting with the colonel, who was accompanied by two Black females.  Blackburn says she still can’t figure out why the two non-witnesses were there.  (To vouch for…what?)

The veteran engineer soon learned of another, documented Tar Baby incident.  “There turned out to have been three incidents in three different offices.  It’s not an isolated case,” she said.  Further investigation turned up a fourth, unreported case, in which the Black woman involved “did nothing.”   

For a primitive doll that can’t walk or talk, this Tar Baby gets around. 

What about Redstone’s military mission?  “I don’t feel that they take advantage of our knowledge,” said Blackburn.  She thinks that Tar Baby has become the slur of choice at the arsenal “because that’s the way they look at us.  They don’t want us to say anything.  They just think they are stuck with us.  There’s a lot of expertise that’s not being utilized because of the color of our skins.”

Al Roach met the Tar Baby last year, at a meeting of Redstone engineers and contractors.  A Black woman was also present when Roach’s now retired supervisor dropped the verbal bomb.  “That’s the first time I ever heard it used as a racial slur,” said Roach.  Later, the civilian boss admitted that the term is part of his vocabulary.  He insisted that, at the time, he didn’t think he’d said anything wrong.  It was all quite routine.

“That’s why they do things that discriminate,” said systems engineer Roach, matter-of-factly.  “It’s a good old boy and blacklist environment.  It’s a way of life.”

Roach collided with white privilege three and a half years ago, when he formally complained of being downgraded.  He described a familiar pattern of complaint followed by reprisal.  “I’m a prime example of the blackball list,” he said.  “But I like what I’m doing.  I’m not going to let anybody run me away.” 

After graduating from Alabama A&M, Roach earned his masters at the University of Minnesota.  He’s worked for Honeywell, Xerox and other private corporations, but was drawn to Redstone partly by the lure of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.  Through DARPA, says Roach, “the military spends millions to encourage inventions to improve weapons systems, but Blacks are locked out of participation.”

The U.S. Army doesn’t want to hear about Roach’s potential innovations, despite his eagerness to participate in the War on Terror.

Precision Guided Bigotry

“My expertise is in buying weapons systems like the Patriot missile system,” Carolyn Lucas announces proudly.   She is fully aware of the value of her experience.  With a masters degree in contracts and acquisition management, certification in three career fields—contracting, program management and financial management—and 31 years on the job, Lucas understands the value of many things.  The cost of training her to become a senior team leader amounts to at least $150,000 in taxpayer money, she estimates. 

She also realizes that her skills count for little in the Redstone old boy network’s scheme of things. 

Lucas, chief operations officer for RAM, has been a GS-13 since 1991.  Her troubles with management began, she says, around 1996.  “I got blacklisted for speaking out for other people,” she laughs.  “I have always been vocal.  I’m a minister, so I’m concerned about people.”

Passed over three times for promotion to GS-14, Rev. Lucas finally filed the first of her seven complaints in 1999, against the Space and Missile Defense Command.  The other six grievances, including four against the Program Executive Office for Tactical Missiles, involve blacklisting and other retaliation for the initial complaint.  “Any time you speak up,” she says, “the word gets around and you become forbidden fruit.”

A white woman with only 15 months as a GS-13 won the promotion, and the agency prevailed at an equal opportunity hearing. Lucas say the EEO judge later described the Army’s promotions process as “a sham.”

As one might expect from a money management expert, she is careful to explain her situation in terms of the investment squandered by the military.  Lucas was among 25 people chosen from across the entire Army to be “trained and groomed to assume senior executive positions.”  Many of her classmates are now GS-15s and virtually all made GS-14, she says.   Lucas is still stuck at 13.

Once her complaints began, “They shoved me into a corner with nothing to do.  For a whole year my supervisor gave me not one work assignment.”  There was no performance to evaluate, of course, just as in the case of Dr. West.

According to Lucas, the Army has tried to negotiate a settlement with her.  She told them: “You can’t settle with me, because this affects all minorities, it’s not just about me.  This is systemic.  They have no standards” when it comes to promoting Blacks.  “This area reeks of racism.  They basically do whatever they want to do. ”Now, “I don’t care if I ever get a GS-14.”

Meanwhile, Lucas says a white female GS-15 “who doesn’t have a day of college” is managing a tactical missiles budget that Lucas estimates at $500 million to $1 billion.

Lucas has given lots of thought to the effects of racism on military readiness.  “I think the impact is monumental.  The old boy system is a direct threat to our national security.

“They use our government tax money to protect managers who are blatant racists.  Incompetence is being inbred in the system. They get people who will let the contractor get away with anything.  You’ve got people in here who don’t even know how to compute percentages.”

Because of incompetence, says Lucas, “it’s inevitable, some people are going to get hurt.  Most people in the infantry are Black.  If a weapon doesn’t work…”

Nobody has confronted the minister with the term Tar Baby—yet.  But, it wouldn’t surprise her.  “That’s all part of the subconscious subculture that prevails in this area.  They think of Black people as troublesome, bothersome, useless.”

Patriotism and Race

When the dust had settled over lower Manhattan, happy-talk newsreaders and wishful thinkers of all kinds spoke of a rekindling of national feeling in the wake of tragedy.  The World Trade Center disaster might bind Americans together “again.” 

The basic flaw in such thinking should have been obvious.  White racism is the great divider of American society.  The racists must change their behavior.  We have seen little evidence of that; at Redstone Arsenal, quite the opposite is true.  Indeed, appeals to patriotism seem to arouse racial passions among the good old boys, causing them to regress to their grandfathers’ patterns of language and behavior. 

It is as if Race and Nation are the same things to these men, just as the two notions were inextricably linked in the minds of white Americans long dead. 

Tar Baby was also thought to be dead and all but forgotten.  Is it coincidental that the grotesque racial caricature has been given new life precisely at this time of war fever?

When George W. Bush blew his bugle, dividing the world into “us” and “them,” Redstone managers decided that African Americans were not part of “us.”  They are acting out this logic, engaging in the wholesale destruction of careers and undermining national defense in the process.

The situation requires the attention of no less than the Commander-in-Chief.  Unlike the near-daily terror alerts, this is no false alarm. 


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Condoleezza's Complaint & Paratroopers in the Basement: Connie's image and the Venezuelan coup

Did the Green Party Betray Black America: by Dr. Jonathan David Farley, Guest Commentator

A Law That Gives Racists Something to Fear:by Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Matthew Fogg, Guest Commentator

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Newark: The First Domino? - The Hard Right Tests its National Black Strategy

Fruit of the Poisoned Tree: The Hard Right's Plan to Capture Newark NJ - April 5, 2002

A Letter from Harvard: "How to spot a "Black Trojan Horse." Dr. Martin Kilson, Guest Commentator

Reparations Part One: The True Value of Some Land and an Animal

The Living Wage Movement: A New Beginning - Bread, Power and Civil Rights in 19 Languages

Rep. Cynthia McKinney's Statement on the Events of September 11: The need for an investigation of the events surrounding September11 is as obvious as is the need for an investigation of the Enron debacle.

Make The Amendment: How to Get the U.S. Government Out of the International Drug Trade

Psychologically Unfit: The U.S. Can't Handle the Death Penalty

Linquistic Profiling: By Patrice D. Johnson, guest commentator