Topic: Government and Politics
The Ethics of “Barack the Magic Negro”
As The Scoreboard frequently
points out, the question “What’s really going on here?” is often
the starting point for ethical analysis. And so it is with a deceptively
complex controversy involving a nine month-old radio parody that Chip
Saltsman, a candidate for chairman of the Republican
included as part of a holiday CD he mailed to committee members. The
parody was first performed on the Rush Limbaugh radio show, and has
the provocative title “Barack the Magic Negro.” Saltsman is under
attack from all sides, as he is accused of everything from being a racist
to appealing to racists to opening the door for Democrats to call Republicans
racists. Was sending the CD a racist act, an objectively wrongful act?
What’s really going on
First, some background on the
song parody, which was inspired by an Op-Ed piece by David Ehrenstein
in the L.A. Times. It was entitled “Obama the ‘Magic Negro’.”
Ehrenstein explained that the term “Magic Negro,” which even has
its own Wikipedia entry, is “a figure of postmodern folk culture,
coined by snarky 20th century sociologists, to explain a cultural figure
who emerged in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education.” Most
frequently seen in Hollywood movies, he is a character with no past,
who appears one day to help white people solve their problems. He is
Sidney Poitier in “Lilies of the Field,” Scatman Crouthers in “The
Twilight Zone Movie,” Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance,”
and Morgan Freeman, who, as many film critics have pointed out, has
virtually made a career out of playing “the Magic Negro,” beginning
with “Driving Miss Daisy.” “He's there,” writes Ehrenstein,
“to assuage white guilt (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over
the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while
replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with
a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.”
…The only mud that momentarily
stuck was criticism (white and black alike) concerning Obama's alleged
"inauthenticty," as compared to such sterling examples of
"genuine" blackness as Al Sharpton and Snoop Dogg. Speaking
as an African American whose last name has led to his racial "credentials"
being challenged — often several times a day
— I know how pesky this sort of thing can be.
This, and the rest of the essay,
was legitimate and provocative commentary (you can read the whole piece
These are the lyrics, which
evoke its source at every turn:
Barack the Magic Negro lives
The lyrics lampooned Sharpton
and others (including Joe Biden, who had called Obama “clean”),
but they are well within the range of legitimate satire, and again,
not racist in any way, unless is trying to develop some kind of complex
racist conspiracy: “Sure, the title came from the Times article, which
comes from film criticism, but it was meant to be heard by people who
don’t know about either, so it’s really racist.” Uh-huh. But that’s
not how daily radio shows are created---there isn’t time to be that
devious. And Limbaugh had discussed the Times piece at some length before
airing the parody.
When the parody first aired,
some netroots bloggers argued that this was Don Imus all over again,
and that Rush had earned similar dismissal. The complaint had no traction,
because even the most jaded liberals could tell that the song was not
racist in intent or execution. In bolder times, the song might have
been performed on “Saturday Night Live” or “In Living Color.”.
So the Op-Ed piece was a provocatively-titled
black writer’s take on the Obama phenomenon, using a term coined by
sociologists to mock Hollywood’s reflexive use of a stereotype to
achieve lazy diversity without controversy. Limbaugh’s parody used
the column to make fun of Al Sharpton’s (and Jesse Jackson’s) obvious
annoyance that Obama was gaining support as a “safe” black candidate
as they lost political influence. How, then, could it be wrong for Saltsman
to send out a song parody that was not, in fact, racially objectionable
when it aired?
Let’s ask again: What’s
really going on here?
Why did Saltsman send out this
stale parody now, to that audience, after Obama had been elected and
is preparing to take office? What was his message?
There are two possibilities, both uncomplimentary to Saltsman. One is that he simply didn’t understand either the lampoon or the original article. He couldn’t figure out that a song with the title “Barack the Magic Negro”, coming from a candidate to steer the GOP after an epic disaster at the ballot box that saw the party get the smallest proportion of African-American votes ever, would be deemed disrespectful to the new president and offensive to many of his supporters. Saltsman, under this theory, made a really stupid mistake because he is, in all likelihood, extremely stupid. This theory is supported by his statement in defense of his holiday “gift”:
"Liberal Democrats and their allies in the media didn't utter a word about David Ehrenstein's irresponsible column in the Los Angeles Times last March. But now, of course, they're shocked and appalled by its parody on 'The Rush Limbaugh Show' I firmly believe that we must welcome all Americans into our party and that the road to Republican resurgence begins with unity, not division. But I know that our party leaders should stand up against the media's double standards and refuse to pander to their desire for scandal."
There was nothing “inappropriate” about the Times Op-Ed, and with the exception of a few Daily Kos types, the media showed no double standard by attacking Rush, because it didn’t attack Rush. Does Saltsman really think Limbaugh was making fun of the Op-Ed? If he was (of course, he wasn’t), and Saltsman really thought the essay was “inappropriate,” then that would mean he sent the song around to ridicule the idea that Obama embodied “the Magic Negro” stereotype. But that’s not what the parody does. It follows Ehrenstein's argument. Wait… if Saltsman really thought that argument was inappropriate, why is he promoting it using Limbaugh’s satire, which would have to be inappropriate too? As a pop quiz for the media’s “double standards”? It makes no sense.
Scratch option #1. Even if Saltsman is an idiot, nobody is that much of an idiot.
This leaves us with option #2: even though the parody itself is not racist, Saltsman thought that the title was a cute way to ridicule president-Elect Obama using a racial label. He was intentionally appealing to the worst instincts of the good ol’ boys on the committee, but doing so by means of a “safe” vehicle that had already sailed through the media watchdogs on the Times editorial pages and the hyper-scrutinized Limbaugh Show.
Saltsman apparently doesn’t fully understand that it means one thing for Rush Limbaugh (who is, in essence, an entertainer) to air an edgy satirical song, and quite another for a GOP official to do so. It violates the Golden Rule (if Saltsman was black, and especially if he were black and knew nothing about the context of the song, how would it make you feel to have a potential head of the Republican National Committee circulating a song called “Barack the Magic Negro”?). Circulating it, at this time (not last March), is unfair, disrespectful, and irresponsible. Yes: it appeals to racism and, I fear, was intended to appeal to racism, because separated from its original time (the campaign for the Democratic nomination…remember that?) and place ( a current events radio show), little remains relevant or comprehensible but the title itself. The title sounds racist. And I don’t believe for one second that Saltsman didn’t know that. I believe that this why he included the song on the CD.
What’s really going on here? A dim-witted Republican with a flat learning curve thought it would be holly-jolly to take a racial shot at the new president, to signal to other Neanderthals on the committee that he, unlike John McCain, wasn’t about to be deferential, cooperative or fair to the uppity liberal. There was no reason to dust off a satirical recording that was otherwise completely dated and irrelevant: the title of the song was insulting and demeaning to Obama now.
At best, Saltsman was very, very, almost unimaginably, stupid. At worst, he was racially motivated, and was specifically appealing to others of the same mind. The Scoreboard’s best guess: he was both.