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The Magic Negro redux

In 2007, David Ehrenstein wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times titled "Obama the Magic Negro." The essence of the piece argues that the "Magic Negro" is a figure of postmodern folk culture, one that has no past but simply appears one day to help the white protagonist.

The "Magic Negro," as an archetype, has been chiefly cinematic, writes Ehernstein, portrayed by actors such as Will Smith ("The Legend of Bagger Vance"), Morgan Freeman ("Driving Miss Daisy"), Sidney Poitier ("Lilies of the Field"), Scatman Crothers ("The Shining") and Michael Duncan ("The Green Mile"). In "The Green Mile" Duncan appears on death row, his past unknown, his powers inexplicable; however, his presence changes everything. Typical of the trope, once the black character has worked his magic, he quickly exits, making no claim on the whites to do anything in return. He is personable, without anger, and replaces stereotypes of the volatile and "highly sexualized black man."

Ultimately, the purpose of the "Magic Negro," Ehrenstein states, is to "assuage white guilt" over slavery and racial segregation. He goes on to link the "Magic Negro" to Barack Obama, the black man who appears suddenly on the national scene to rescue white America while setting right countless contemporary and historical wrongs.

Of course, Ehrenstein's article generated critical response. But it also captured the attention of GOP conservative Rush Limbaugh, who was the first to play on his talk radio show the ditty, "Barack the Magic Negro," performed by satirist Paul Shanklin to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon." Shanklin actually made a CD with the song, which also included "Wright Place, Wrong Pastor" and "Star Spanglish Banner."

Despite the fact that Shanklin sang the Obama song parodying the voice of Al Sharpton, Limbaugh featured it repeatedly on his show. But then, black stereotypical parody has been part of Limbaugh's show for some time and was ratcheted up when Obama became a candidate for president.

Apparently Limbaugh, whose attitudes represent the most conservative elements of the GOP, is not alone in his blatant racist attitudes. There are those in the Republican Party, to include some serving on the RNC, who are stunningly tone deaf when it comes to matters of race.

Chip Saltzman, former manager of Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign, recently included Shanklin's CD in a Christmas gift bag to fellow Republicans. When challenged, neither he nor his conservative cohorts saw anything wrong with the gesture. Saltzman has recently thrown his hat in the ring to head up the RNC when current chair Mike Duncan steps down.

When asked about the CD and the song, Saltzman said, "I think most people recognize political satire when they see it. I think all RNC members understand that."

If he is right, then the GOP has truly lost its way and continues to be the party not of America as it is, but of America as it once was. Their cultural myopia will soon send the Republicans to the fringes of society, steadfast in their belief that our country is still that sea of white faces so evident on the floor of the last GOP nominating convention.

Thankfully, America is no longer a place where people of color are relegated to the margins of society, invisible while white America lives as if they were nonexistent. Those days are part of a past wherein the norm was white privilege and restricted country clubs, political parties and back of the bus seating, colored drinking fountains and voting laws that were intended to disenfranchise, and schools which were separate and unequal. Can all of this be lost on the GOP? Can they be on the wrong side of history and not realize it?

Conservatives ignore the ever-changing America at their peril, their entrenched attitudes glaringly anachronistic, relics of yesterday, cruelly bankrupt of understanding or a sense of fairness, and absent a commitment to equality.

It requires almost a suspension of disbelief to understand that Saltzman and his ilk do not comprehend that the face of America is multi-ethnic, a rainbow of different people, orientations and beliefs and we are all the better for it.

There is a moral imperative that resides at the heart of our nation: "E Pluribus Unum." Out of many, one. If America is to be America, we will embrace those words and never yield.