Unveiling Systemic Racism: “Barack the Magic Negro” Revisited

Recently, Chip Saltsman, former chair of the Tennessee Republican party and candidate for chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), sent a parody CD entitled “We Hate the USA” to party members as a holiday gag gift. The CD included a song “Barack the Magic Negro,” (listen to the song  here) which many public officials deemed odious. In an interview with CNN, Saltsman defended his song by asserting:

I think most people recognize political satire when they see it. I think RNC members understand that.

Saltsman’s retort is a classic example of European American denial about their active role in propagating racism. Like Saltsman, most European Americans mistakenly believe that racial bigotry is a product of intentional (though perhaps sometimes unconscious) interactions between individuals. Contrary to this popular belief, a large and well-established body of social scientific research empirically reveals that racial bigotry is the result of deeply rooted social and institutional processes referred to as systemic racism. Systemic racism includes a complex array of racially bigoted practices, unjustly gained political-economic power of European Americans, continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines, and racist ideologies and attitudes that maintain and rationalize European American privilege and power. Since European Americans are so immersed in the propaganda of systemic racial conditioning they readily accept the deceptive equation of racism with prejudice and believe “race” rather than racism is the reason for racial injustice. This view is fallacious because it ignores the fact that racial bigotry is not merely a product of intentional interactions between individuals but racialized social relationships developed over generations and manifested in all of society’s major institutions.

Though many European Americans, like Saltsman, can correctly surmise that many current disparities besetting communities of racialized “others” (i.e., Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos) are traceable to inequalities passed on from earlier generations that suffered under state sanctioned racism, they refuse to accept the fact that historical patterns of racism/“race”-based exclusion from social, economic and political processes did not simply disappear when legalized racism was outlawed. Long after many European Americans ceased to consciously and actively discriminate against racialized “others,” there persists racist social patterns dictating where people live, which organizations they belong to, what schools they attend and so on – that were created during slavery and de jure segregation. For this reason contemporary social and institutional structures are products of racist foundations. As such, they perpetuate practices of the nation’s racist past even though many of the people populating these structures may not be overtly racially bigoted. Consequently, it is troublesome to hear media and public officials spin discussion of racial bigotry as a relic of the past during exchanges around Saltsman’s joke song “Barack the Magic Negro,” while many Americans recognize and experience racism every day through its various forms.

Saltsman’s bigoted “satire” is eerily reminiscent of the “Harold, Call Me” ad ran by the Tennessee RNC in the 2006 Senate race between European American Republican Bob Corker and African American Democrat Harold Ford in which a European American female jokingly remarked: “I met Harold at the Playboy party,” and then winked towards the camera. This scene within the ad is framed in a way to heighten European American racial bias about interracial sex (view the ad here ). The regularity of such RNC racial “satire” suggests these “joke” ads are calculated attempts by party officials, like Saltsman, to tap into European Americans’ conscious and unconscious racially bigoted sentiments to win elections. This same practice was evident during the presidential campaign when racist imagery of then Senator Barack Obama consistently appeared at RNC campaign rallies and political leaflets such as the “Obama Buck,” (picturing Obama with fried chicken, watermelon, kool-aid and other racially stereotyped imagery ads; view the ad here ) mailed by the California GOP to
RINOcratconstituents. In addition, the Family Research Council, a Republican connected organization, facilitated the distribution of racially bigoted political “satire” at their annual convention by sanctioning the sale of “Obama Waffles” whose box cover depicted Obama as a racial stereotype wearing an Arab-like headdress (Creative Commons License photo credit: neolibertariandotcom).

By arguing that racially bigoted political “satire” such as “Barack the Magic Negro” is “just a joke,” Saltsman and others of his ilk promote the social acceptability of negative racial stereotypes. Americans, particularly European-Americans, must always bear in mind the link between humor and racism, especially when one hears the claim that a joke is just a joke. A joke is a form of social communication that can only be comprehensible in the social context in which it is created. The point is that the meaning of racially bigoted “satire” is impossible to understand if white supremacy/white racism were not an endemic constituent of U.S. society. Moreover, racially bigoted “satire” permits timid and not so timid bigots to derive enjoyment from expressing what is normally inhibited. Therefore offensive racial humor designed for the public consumption enables perpetrators to reject overt racially bigoted “satire” by saying “It was just a joke.” However, within the private confines of the organization or group, such racially offensive humor is uncloaked for what it is, racial bigotry.

Racial bigotry expressed in disguised forms is called covert racism as opposed to overt racism where racial bigots openly express their aversive sentiments towards racialized “others.” Sometimes the covert racist is not even aware of the fact that s/he is racially bigoted. Because it is now unacceptable to express openly racist views, European American racial bigotry has morphed into a systemic process of oppression that is less overt, far more subtle, and less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the hateful acts. Since systemic racism operates as an established and respected force in America, it receives far less public condemnation than openly expressed bigoted acts. Saltsman’s racial political “satire” is a compelling example of covert systemic racism in that political officials widely deplored Saltsman’s individual act of bigotry – at least in words but remain mum about the systemic racism that keep racialized “others” in poor health, jobless, disenfranchised and so on.

Since systemic racism is often unconscious and insidious, we, especially European Americans, need to be very vigilant against its seepage into the formulation of institutional social policy and practices. Research often presented on the site here shows compellingly that the best way to counteract systemic racism is to substantively embody anti-racist policies and practices in every dimension of societal life (e.g., political, economic, social, educational, culture, etc.). This will force overt and covert racial bigotry out into the open where we cannot ignore it. Whether or not the nation is prepared to confront and dismantle systemic racism depends heavily, as my colleague Abby Ferber at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, asserts on European Americans’ willingness to consciously see and accept their own racial bigotry (read her article “I Am Racist!” here) In order to reach this position Ferber rightly contends, “the answer is not to ignore racism, but to increase its visibility. Focus on it, examine it, understand it and dismantle it.”

Johnny E. Williams is a Professor of Sociology at Trinity College in Connecticut and the author of African American Religion and the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas (2003).


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