A little less than 'magic'

Our initial reaction to the "Barack the Magic Negro" controversy was to ignore it. For Chip Saltsman, a candidate to chair the Republican National Committee, to send out a Christmas CD to other party officials that included the offensive, un-funny parody was such an evidently boneheaded move that it didn't seem to require our comment. RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, who is seeking reelection, said he was "shocked and appalled that anyone would think this is appropriate." Another candidate, Michigan party chair Saul Anuzis, had a similar reaction. "In my opinion, this isn't funny and it's in bad taste," he said. It seemed likely that a party already reeling from its poor performance in November would want nothing to do with a leader who demonstrated such bad judgment.

But no. " 'Magic Negro' flap might help Saltsman," a Politico headline reported this week. "When I found out what this was about I had to ask, 'Boy, what's the big deal here?' because there wasn't any," Maine GOP Chairman Mark Ellis told the publication. The song "didn't bother me one bit," said Alabama Republican Committeeman Paul Reynolds. Some party leaders, it seems, are more ticked at Duncan and Anuzis for their criticism than they are at Saltsman. Former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, one of two African-American candidates for party chair, decried "hypersensitivity in the press regarding matters of race."

The song, written by conservative satirist Paul Shanklin and aired repeatedly on Rush Limbaugh's radio show last year, is sung in the imagined voice of the Rev. Al Sharpton to the tune of the old Peter, Paul and Mary song "Puff the Magic Dragon." It was inspired by a March 2007 column in the Los Angeles Times by David Ehrenstein, an African-American writer who sought to place Obama's candidacy in the larger context of what he called "the magic Negro," an idealized figure who assuages liberal guilt and fulfills white Americans' desire for "a noble, healing Negro." Shanklin took the column and ran: "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."

There is a difference between an African-American writer using the word "Negro" in an ironic way and the Limbaughs and Saltsmans of the world thinking it is acceptable in common usage. There is a difference between an African-American writer discussing the tensions between different generations of black political leaders and a white Tennessee Republican thinking it is funny to sing about who is or is not "from the 'hood." Saltsman doesn't seem to get that. "I think that RNC members have the good humor and good sense to recognize that (Shanklin's) songs for the Rush Limbaugh show are light-hearted political parodies," he said in a statement. We think — we hope, anyway — that RNC members have the good sense to find a chairman who understands how wrong that assessment is.

— The Washington Post

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