Saturday, December 27, 2008

'Negroes,' magic and otherwise

A candidate for chairman of the Republican National Committee has gotten himself in hot water by sending out a 22-song gift CD that includes the Paul Shanklin parody, "Barack, the Magic Negro." This act has "appalled" the current RNC chairman and provoked widespread commentary from the blogosphere.

While the mob descends to feast upon the bones of Chip Saltsman, can we pause long enough to ask ourselves exactly why his action was offensive?

Let us begin with the expression "Magic Negro" -- a term of cultural criticism applied to a certain type of character in fiction, especially in movies, who serves a symbolic function as a helper to the white protagonist. (Richard Brookhiser has used the phrase "Numinous Negro" with a similar meaning.)

The evocative phrase "Magic Negro" was first applied to Barack Obama by Hollywood writer David Ehrenstein in a March 2007 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that concluded:
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.
Ehrenstein's column provoked a lot of discussion at the time of its publication, and among those discussing it was Rush Limbaugh who -- if memory serves -- related Ehrenstein's analysis to the theme developed by Shelby Steele in his recent book, White Guilt.

At some point afterward, Shanklin adapted the phrase to the tune of "Puff, the Magic Dragon" for a parody that featured Al Sharpton grousing about Obama's political success:
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.
Whatever its value as political analysis, Shanklin's song aptly summarizes a point made by Ehrenstein about the "is-he-black-enough" criticism that was being made of the Harvard-educated Obama in early 2007:
The only mud that momentarily stuck was criticism (white and black alike) concerning Obama's alleged "inauthenticity," 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.
Note the phrase, "Speaking as an African American" -- the author of the column that inspired the Shanklin parody is a black man himself! And, in case you didn't notice, the main point of the Shanklin parody was not to attack Obama, but to lampoon the envious reaction of Sharpton, as you can see from this one-minute video version:

These facts would seem relevant to the question of whether the Shanklin song is objectively "racist." Of course, facts are not in the least relevant to the ritual denunciation of Chip Saltsman -- no Republican ever gets the benefit of the doubt in these sorts of controversies, so Saltsman's bones will be added to the same pile with the skeletal remains of Trent Lott and George Allen.

UPDATE: My memory of Limbaugh's monologue invoking Shelby Steele's book was accurate:
He's just there to assuage white guilt. In other words, the only reason Obama's anywhere is because whites are willing to support him because they feel so guilty over slavery. Now, before you reject this, Shelby Steele has written a great book about the whole concept of white guilt and how it is allowing our society to become more and more passive about any number of transgressions that the country has made from its inception.
Limbaugh perhaps exaggerates Ehrenstein's argument (and Steele's) but not by much.

UPDATE II: A commenter anonymously asserts that Saltsman used the Obama song as a coded attack on two of his rivals for the RNC chair, Ken Blackwell and Michael Steele. If so, this attributes to RNC members a level of cryptogrammatic expertise I lack, as the possibility of such a motive never occurred to me. Saltsman himself says he and Shanklin are longtime friends, which seems a better explanation.

UPDATE III: Linked by Michelle Malkin, who references Peter Yarrow's outrage and comments:
All of sudden — after eight years of "F**k Bush" bumper stickers and "Kill Bush" assassination chic and Bush-or-Chimp parodies — the left is concerned about insulting the office of the Presidency?
And it's not like Malkin's unfamiliar with how liberals use racial slurs when it suits their purpose.

UPDATE IV: Hmmmm. Allah does an "obligatory" post about the controversy . . . and doesn't link The Boss? As to Allah's point, yes, of course it is ridiculous for the Republican Party to invest resources in defending the use of "an archaic term." And as such, it was stupid of Saltsman to include the parody in his gift to RNC members. But how is it that Obama suffers no political consequence for spending 20 years in the pews of Rev. Jeremiah "God Damn America" Wright's church, while the entire GOP is irredeemably tainted because of one satirical tune by Paul Shanklin? Does this mean that Rush Limbaugh's 20 million listeners are also hatemongering bigots?

You've got to pick your fights, and I don't think this is a hill worth dying for -- I'd never even heard of Saltsman until this brouhaha erupted -- but if you never fight, you never win.

UPDATE V: Jammie Wearing Fool has some interesting observations on the Complete Moral Authority of Peter Yarrow, who was pardoned for his crime by President Carter. Hey, it's for the children.


  1. While I admire your commitment to objective analysis, I think even accounting for the caveat you've pointed out, Chip Saltsman is a scumbag. The reason he included this song on a CD included in a gift bag was to galvanize the sect of the Republican party somewhat aversed to voting for a black candidate, i.e. Michael Steele and Ken Blackwell. It's obvious that that has at least something to do with it, and if not, I find it exceedingly shortsited let alone bigoted to pass a CD out with this song on it completely aware of the fact he's running against black candidates yet oblivious to its inherent offensiveness. There is no defense of his use of it. It doesn't matter that Shanklin's song was based on an article written by an African-American. That doesn't make the song any less offensive, nor does it make Saltsman's distribution of it in an effort to garner votes any less offensive. So why should it be pointed out? I don't agree that it is worth considering in the condemnation of this a**hole. This is similar to Sean Hannity's claim that now that Obama will use his full name when he's inaugurated, that vindicates all of his detractors who used it with emphasis in order to raise suspicions that he is Muslim during the campaign. Everyone can see it for what it is. Holding up these types of smoke screens to repel criticism that you're promoting prejudice all while trying to appeal to the worst instincts of your base is not going to work anymore. After the drubbing the Republican party just received and the election of the first African-American president, you would think that just maybe this party would wake up. I guess not. People are still clamoring for Sarah Palin '12. You guys will never learn. I wonder what Steele and Blackwell have to say about this.

  2. Perhaps we will be fortunate in at least one aspect due to the election of Mr. Obama. Maybe we will be able to stop political correctness and professional offendedness in their tracks. Probably not, but at least there is a chance. The song is funny, and not a racial slur.

  3. " ... If so, this attributes to RNC members a level of cryptogrammatic expertise, I lack... "

    Actually, considering the current crop of incompetents at the RNC, I am quite certain they lack such skills, too.

    Afterall, how can one find the time to aquire advanced crytogrammatic skills when one has yet to master simple repetative skills... such as the normal breathing cycle and placing the fork in the mouth, not the eye or cheek.

    In short, I don't think it reasonable to impune advanced skills to RNC leadership until we have some evidence of mastery of the basic ones.

  4. Whatever the motivations, no matter how benign, Saltsman was stupid to include it on that CD. That stupidity is more than enough to disqualify him from being a candidate for the RNC chair as stupidity is on the "not wanted" list of attributes.


  5. If the democrats can have Robert Bird, surely the RNC can have Saltsman. Saltsman is mild by comparison. On the other hand, where has everyone's sense of humor gone? What is offensive is that this country elected Obama president just because he was black, which is contradictory to what MLK championed, which was to be judged by one's character, not by the color of one's skin. Had Obama been white, he never would have gotten that far. The sting in any rebuke is the truth.

  6. Is it more of a problem because people outside of the RNC found out about it? If you want stupid, look at howard dean. Here's the deal: Rush plays that parody all the time. I don't see the outcry there, so why is there one here? Since it crosses the threshold of race issues and political correctness, everyone is trying to pick up the turd from the clean end. You can't. If Michael Steele had brought the CD, would we be talking about this?

  7. I think it is fair to characterize the use of that ditty as "petty."

    I'll be happy to debate the philosophy or policy of Obama any day of the week.

    Some are happy to debate less challenging things, I guess.

  8. You're a racist idiot.

  9. The problem as I see it, is that liberals always set the agenda.
    If they say something is offensive.
    CINO's bend to their will and genuflect to the liberal opinion.
    It could be debated that Saltsman should have known he'd be attacked, but therein lies the rub.
    The attack isn't justified. He wasn't being racist and doesn't need to apologize.
    Conservatives In Name Only are the problem.
    Bending over and grabbing your ankles is not a Conservative movement.
    The left has Republicans backpeddling all the time.
    I don't back peddle unless I'm wrong.

  10. "I think it is fair to characterize the use of that ditty as "petty.

    I'll be happy to debate the philosophy or policy of Obama any day of the week."

    However, if you listen to the words who just might discover the ditty isn't about Obama or racism. It's a satirical look at how the Democrat Party uses identity (race, gender, sex, class) to generate grievances (racism, sexism, homophobia, economic crisis); the joke is on Democrats and the idea that because judgment is based on 'color of skin' and not 'content of character' Democrats are inherently racist, as well as, sexist, homophobes who redistribute wealth as the mean of buying votes.

    One could even say it's a commentary about how 'Barack the Magic Negro' is enslaved by the Democrat Plantation rather than a commentary about how Republicans are the 'race-mongers'.