Topic: Government and Politics

The Ethics of “Barack the Magic Negro”
(1/1/2008)

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 National Committee, 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 here?

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.”

It concluded…

…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.

Obama's fame right now has little to do with his political record or what he's written in his two (count 'em) books, or even what he's actually said in those stem-winders. It's the way he's said it that counts the most. It's his manner, which, as presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Biden ham-fistedly reminded us, is "articulate." His tone is always genial, his voice warm and unthreatening, and he hasn't called his opponents names (despite being baited by the media).

Like a comic-book superhero, Obama is there to help, out of the sheer goodness of a heart we need not know or understand. For as with all Magic Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes. If he were real, white America couldn't project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him.

This, and the rest of the essay, was legitimate and provocative commentary (you can read the whole piece at www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-ehrenstein19mar19,0,5335087.story?coll=la-opinion-center) by a black writer; one has to have hair-trigger sensitivity to regard it as racist in any way. It was a serious examination of the Obama phenomenon at the time it was written. The headline, I suspect, triggered the parody, as it intentionally evoked “Puff the Magic Dragon” and thus was a satire begging to be written. Limbaugh’s favorite parodist, Paul Shanklin, rose to the challenge, and had the parody sung by an Al Sharpton impersonator, supposedly angry that Obama was stealing support that should have been his.

These are the lyrics, which evoke its source at every turn:

Barack the Magic Negro lives in D.C.
The L.A. Times, they called him that
'Cause he's not authentic like me.

Yeah, the guy from the L.A. paper
Said he makes guilty whites feel good
They'll vote for him, and not for me
'Cause he's not from the hood.

See, real black men, like Snoop Dog,
Or me, or Farrakhan
Have talked the talk, and walked the walk.
Not come in late and won!

Refrain:
Oh, Barack the Magic Negro, lives in D.C.
The L.A. Times, they called him that
'Cause he's black, but not authentically.

(repeat Refrain)

Some say Barack's "articulate"
And bright and new and "clean"
The media sure loves this guy,
A white interloper's dream!

But, when you vote for president,
Watch out, and don't be fooled!
Don't vote the Magic Negro in
'Cause...
(music stops, Sharpton rants, music returns)

(background vocalists repeat refrain & finish song)

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."

Huh?

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.

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