Over the Christmas break, the race for Republican National Committee chair experienced its second racially tinged controversy, when news broke that Chip Saltsman sent RNC members a CD of parody artist Paul Shanklin that included the song “Barack the Magic Negro,” sung to the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
One can explain a joke, but one can’t save it. Yes, in the song, Shanklin is imitating a jealous Al Sharpton denouncing Obama as inauthentic, and the title is inspired by the Hollywood’s late-1990s obsession with depicting mystically or spiritually attuned African-American characters who suddenly appear on the horizon to nurture the moral development of white protagonists — Lawrence Fishburne in The Matrix, Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Don Cheadle in The Family Man, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, almost any character played by Morgan Freeman. (Lyrics to the song can be found here.)
And yes, it’s strange to see the term “negro” suddenly almost as leaden with moral risk as the other n-word, and we need not be reminded that the United Negro College Fund retains its original name (although the term rarely appears on the web site of the organization, identified mostly as UNCF).
“Negro” is, if not offensive, archaic. The use of the term in the title and chorus detracts from the point of the song, which is Sharpton’s jealousy, and/or the perception that Obama is portrayed in the vein of all of those Hollywood characters — mysterious, appearing on the horizon, attuned to deep spiritual truths and offering a seemingly magical healing touch.
The counterargument rolled out by Saltsman – it’s a satire – seems insufficient to the moment.
If you want to win over African-American voters to your party, perhaps the first step is to figure out why the title “Barack the Magic Negro” would offend them. Few would be offended by a song called “Barack the Magic Chicagoan” or “Barack the Magic Politician”; the use of the term “negro” specifically identifies him by his skin color, which makes it appear that his skin color is what’s being held up for ridicule, not the perception that he’s magical. It’s easy to see a song that appears to be mocking someone for his skin color as inconsistent with judging people by the content of their character.
If you’re going to send a gift to all RNC members, that gift is going to say a lot about you. I had said about Katon Dawson that the measure of a man is more than his country club membership; the measure of Chip Saltsman is a lot more than a song on a CD he sent as a Christmas gift. But this is an entirely unforced error, giving those who wish to portray the GOP as racially insensitive a cheap and easy example to add to their arsenal.
UPDATE: Several readers write in point out that the song was inspired by an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. Yes, I know, that’s why the link above on the word “obsession” takes you to that op-ed.