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Barack the Magic Negro

By Kevin Robinson in News on May 7, 2007 1:50PM

The internets were buzzing this weekend with Rush Limbaugh's latest parody of liberal self-loathing. Riffing on a column by LA Times writer David Ehrenstein, the song, sung from the perspective of civil-rights activist and sometime presidential candidate Al Sharpton and set to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon," has quickly become controversial.

A sociological term devised in the 20th Century to describe a black character that appears dramatically to save a white protagonist, the "Magic Negro" possesses patience and folk wisdom, often sacrificing himself while helping the white character recognize and overcome his own faults and weaknesses. As Ehrenstein points out in his column, this stereotype is not new; indeed, it has been employed as a device in many modern dramatic and literary media, from The Defiant Ones to Driving Miss Daisy, The Shining through most films Will Smith has starred in.

It's easy to dismiss Limbaugh's developmentally retarded parody as racist. Technically it is something worthy of an FM radio station's morning wake-up show. But the fact of the matter is that dismissing it out-of-hand disregards the reality of the message that many people are taking from Obama's candidacy. When he first ran for Senate in Illinois, few outside of his district had heard of him, a problem quickly solved when it became apparent that, at least politically, he was authentically and ideologically aligned with the issues that mattered to many Illinois voters. But his presidential candidacy has been stuck in the realm of uniting-a-divided-nation rhetoric, wrapped up in the story of a black man that doesn't threaten social norms, and on whom many liberals can pin their hopes. Like John Coffey in Stephen King's The Green Mile, Barack Obama is exactly the kind of black man that many white liberals can agree on — selfless and kind, carrying the burdens of a racially charged past while allowing white America to like blacks individually, while eschewing the more difficult challenge of understanding and accepting black culture. In many ways, Joe Biden got it right, even if he said it wrong: "You got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.... I mean, that's a storybook, man."