The “Magic Negro”: Mocking President-Elect Obama

I just checked google for the phrase “magic Negro” in connection with President-elect Obama, and got 638,000 hits. This term has lately become a racist epithet used widely by white conservatives and supremacists to mock President-elect Obama. It is an old concept used in movie analysis, but has really taken off since David Ehrenstein wrote a March 2007 piece, “Obama the ‘Magic Negro’: The Illinois senator lends himself to the white America’s idealized, less-than-real black man.” Early in Obama’s campaign Ehrenstein applied the concept of the “magic Negro” to then Senator Obama as a way of describing how whites were reacting to him.

The “magic Negro” term has been used for some time as a sarcastic term for a common plot device used by (mostly white) writers and producers in stories and movies where a black person appears to help out a white protagonist. Wikipedia summarizes some literature on the idea this way:

The magical Negro serves as a plot device to help the protagonist get out of trouble, typically through helping the white character recognize his own faults and overcome them. Although he has magical powers, his “magic is ostensibly directed toward helping and enlightening a white male character.” It is this feature of the magical negro that some people find most troubling. Although from a certain perspective the character may seem to be showing blacks in a positive light, he is still ultimately subordinate to whites. He is also regarded as an exception, allowing white America to “like individual black people but not black culture.” [like Sidney Poitier portrays in The Defiant Ones, the prototypical magical Negro movie]

In their fine book on the movies, Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon describe the use of black characters in many movies as “saviors” or “sidekicks” of the main white protagonist; their book is probably the best scholarly study on this device. They point out how rarely the black actor (and other actors of color) historically has been the central protagonist, but get this sidekick or savior role.

In his 2007 article Ehrenstein contended that Obama was just such a magic Negro because of the way many whites were stereotyping and reacting to him–because of

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.

That is, in better terminology, Senator Obama was, and still is, construed by many whites from a colorblind version of the old white racial frame, one that views him as a safe exception to his race because he almost never has spoken of racial matters, the unfinished civil rights agenda, or enforcing civil rights laws. He speaks of unity, not of racism.

Ehrenstein’s article had a serious analytical purpose. But the language somehow inspired Paul Shanklin, the conservative speaker and satirist, to write a satirical song, “Barack the Magic Negro,” (to the tune of “Puff, the Magic Dragon”), that was then played first by Rush Limbaugh on his talk show and became popular in conservative circles as a way of mocking Obama. Now the “magic Negro” term became an attack phrase, to mock Obama, and by implication, black men like him generally.

The political plot thickened when in December 2008, Chip Saltsman, a white Republican political operative and candidate for chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), circulated a Christmas Greeting CD to Republican National Committee members. The song’s mocking lyrics offer a negative parody of leaders like Al Sharpton critiquing Obama as a black latecomer who came in “late and won.” Some Republican conservatives defended this racialized mocking of Obama and other black leaders as inconsequential, while other Republicans, including the 2008 RNC chair, said they were appalled at Saltsman’s actions and noted that actions like this indicated the Republican Party needed more diversity. (This latter point is on target, indeed, for just 1.5 percent of the nearly 2400 Republican Party delegates at the summer 2008 convention were black.)

Certainly, this phrase “magic Negro” is now regularly used in this country, especially aggressively by conservatives and white supremacists–some hundreds of thousands of times already on the Internet.

In addition, on New Year’s day 2009, Fox News “accidentally” aired a text message from a viewer that said that “let’s hope the magic negro does a good job.” Fox apologized.

The Saltsman debacle has created much debate in and outside the mass media and the Internet. What do you think of all this?