Satire, Race And The 'Magic Negro'

Chip Saltsman, one of the candidates for chair of the Republican National Committee, sent a CD full of song parodies to several RNC members — including a song called "Barack the Magic Negro." The term "magic negro" dates back to the 1950s. Used today, is it satire or racism?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Earlier this month, Chip Saltsman, one of the candidates to be next chair of the Republican National Committee, sent a CD full of song parodies to several RNC members for Christmas. Among them, "Barack the Magic Negro," sung to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon," by a white man impersonating Al Sharpton.

The lyrics refer to a Los Angeles Times op-ed published a year ago called "Obama the Magic Negro," which described him as an African-American candidate who made whites feel good about themselves and that term, the "magic negro," dates to the 1950s, when it was used in movie circles to describe an African-American character, usually male, who eases racial barriers - think Sydney Poitier in "Lilies of the Field" or Morgan Freeman in "Driving Miss Daisy" or Whoopi Goldberg in "Ghost."

Amid the controversy that ensued, some argue that satire is not always polite or in good taste and gets aimed at every president or president-elect. Others say this goes beyond the boundaries of satire to racism. So, let's talk about the limits of satire and race. Call us, 800-989-8255; email, talk@npr.org. Dawn Turner Trice is a columnist who covers race relations for the Chicago Tribune and joins us now from her office at the Tribune. Nice to have you back on the program.

Ms. DAWN TURNER TRICE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Thank you so much.

CONAN: And how are your readers reacting to this?

Ms. TRICE: Well, it's really - there are - they've been very, very vocal about it, because a lot of them believe that, you know, satire is satire and that's OK, and we understand that people are going to be offended sometimes. But - and so that's not the question, the question is will the Republican Party, the party that's saying that it needs to expand its tent, - I mean, is this the way to go - having someone who's running for Republican National Committee chairman send out a goody bag of sorts of gifts that includes a CD like this that is a parody, it is satire? But do you - and to some it is offensive. And do you - can you extend the tent if you have something like this out there that you're circulating?

CONAN: This is - in a way, by sending it in a goody bag to other members of the RNC, this is saying, this is who we are - all are within this club and that we would find this funny?

Ms. TRICE: Right. And it's - I mean, that's unfortunate. It's an unfortunate gift and that is the message. You have had a lot of Republican - a number of Republicans, Newt Gingrich among them, who've come out and said that this is not what the Republican Party should be doing - or members of the party should be doing.

CONAN: But is - obviously, we have our first president-elect who's African-American and shortly our first president. Is race off-bounds?

Ms. TRICE: Not at all. And it shouldn't be. And again, as a person - I'm a journalist, I'm a novelist, and I believe in free speech. And I think that - and I understand that sometimes what we say and write will offend some people. And, I mean, the candidate himself has said, you know, that he's thick-skinned about this.

But it's not about a person, a lay person who is - who's saying something off-color or even a comic or an entertainer. I mean, I think it's a little different when you have a politician - particularly you have a party that's very concerned or appears to be very concerned about having such a narrow message and a fairly narrow base and they're talking about expanding the tent. And something like this really does not come across as doing that.

CONAN: Yet, people will point back to - well, sometimes vicious satires of George W. Bush, most recently, including a weekly half-hour program that poked fun at him.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. And that's why - I mean - and I've heard the president-elect say over and over that this is an - you know, I mean, this - when you put yourself in that arena, then you are open to certain types of satire. But at the same time, you are - I think it's also fair to question - I mean, what comes up to the line and what crosses the line? And to some people, I mean, this is it.

You recall the New Yorker cover with the Obamas dressed in - holding guns and dressed in Muslim garb. And that was quite offensive to a lot of people. And sometimes it's the person who is actually - or the entity that's actually putting the stuff out there. And the New Yorker has kind of a liberal tone and to some people that wasn't as offensive as - now, I mean, a lot of people - there was a lot of discussion about it. But it's also - it's as much about the messenger as it is the message, when you're dealing with these issues.

CONAN: So are we, after November the 4th, redrawing the lines of PC?

Ms. TRICE: Are we redrawing the lines of…?

CONAN: Political correctness - what's acceptable and what isn't.

Ms. TRICE: I don't think that we're redrawing the lines. I think that because we have not really had a chance to talk about this. In previous presidential elections or during these - with our presidents, we haven't had an opportunity to really talk about race. If you think about what the Republicans - the Republicans now are saying that, OK, they've got to kind of look back over what they've done in the past and rethink some things. Well, for the last 44 years, I mean, there had - they've built a coalition that's - excuse me - that's dealt with innuendo and code words and, in some cases, you know, to some degree, a bit of race-baiting.

And so - but you really didn't get a good - a big feel for it. I mean, there have been some elections where you have. And it wasn't until this election where it was kind of really front and center. And so, are we redrawing the lines? I'm not so certain. And maybe we're uncovering some things. And we had - this is some new territory that we've got to just deal with.

CONAN: And you're talking about - well, the Southern strategy that, so far as I know, goes back to 1968 and Richard Nixon.

Ms. TRICE: Yes, yes.

CONAN: And years later, with effect, by Ronald Reagan as well.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely.

CONAN: Let's see, if we can get some listeners in on the conversation. We're talking with Dawn Turner Trice of the Chicago Tribune about "Barack the Magic Negro," a parody which has been circulated by one of the candidates to be the next Republican National Committee chair to some of the committee members who would be voting on that nomination. If you'd like to get in on the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255; email, talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Scott and Scott joins us from Reno, Nevada.

SCOTT (Caller): Hi, everyone.

Ms. TRICE: Hello.

SCOTT: I am a Republican and the congressional district that I live in, here in Reno, has never elected a Democratic candidate for Congress since it was created in 1980. And I even feel that this parody crossed the line. I really feel that it was very racist in nature, that it basically said that the president-elect is an upstart, that he's just ingratiating himself amongst whites, that he's a "house negro" instead of a "field negro," that he's an Uncle Tom. And you can even - if you remember - look back at that one in Southern California for San Bernadino, I believe, where the Republican Women's Club…

Ms. TRICE: Yeah, I remember.

SCOTT: (unintelligible) about that.

Ms. TRICE: Yeah, the good stamps.

SCOTT: The food stamps with the fried chicken and all those things on it.

Ms. TRICE: Yeah, with ribs and watermelon slices floating around the face of Barack Obama.

SCOTT: And I really feel that this is crossing the line. And I'm a lifelong Republican, very much a red-state person, but I even feel that this is race-baiting and crossing the line and is very unproductive. Thanks for your time.

CONAN: OK, Scott. Thanks for the phone call. Interesting. We have learned that this song was in fact played, quite some time ago, on the Rush Limbaugh show and caused very few ripples at that moment.

Ms. TRICE: Right. Well, I mean - and I wanted to go back to what the caller was saying - the California women and the fake food stamps. And they had said that this was the type of currency that a black president should be on. But there's also the waffles that were - that waffles box that was created in Franklin, Tennessee and exhibited at a families values conference before the election, if you recall that one. And that one had Obama's likeness, the bulging eyes and the big, thick lips.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. TRICE: And so - I mean, this is - you know, I mean, clearly, we've never seen anything like this before because we've not had an African-American candidate before.

CONAN: Well, we've seen a lot of caricatures of presidents, but we've not seen them go into racial caricatures.

Ms. TRICE: Yes. Absolutely.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Tim is with us. Tim is in Ponca, Nebraska. Is that right?

TIM (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

TIM: I think it's kind of messed up that people are upset about this caricature of Barack Obama. You know, Bush and everybody else gets satired, and that's OK, but it's crossing the lines when you satire Barack Obama. I mean, it goes back to almost any situation where you have some type of almost reverse discrimination, where you can't call an African-American person black, but yet, you can call a Caucasian person white.

You know, it's OK to call me by my skin color, but I can't call you by your skin color. I mean, it just - it upsets me that people get upset over the whole race issue. You know, this election wasn't even about race, except for all the people of color put - made it about race when they said, oh, it's the first black president. Well, that was all the people of color that said that it wasn't a race issue, but yet, they made it a race issue. I mean, I didn't see John McCain or anybody else saying, well, he's black, you know. Of course he's black. That doesn't matter. You don't vote on somebody because of their color.

CONAN: Well, some people do, Tim. But nevertheless, you've raised a lot there. And you know, in a way, I think what Tim is saying is that, gee, it's unfair to play the race card when you're just getting criticized like everybody gets criticized. Stop being so sensitive.

Ms. TRICE: Well, I mean, the question again isn't about - I mean, I understand the criticism. But the discussion here is about Saltsman, who gave out the tape as a gift and about whether the Republican Party is sincere - some members of the party - whether they're sincere about expanding the tent. And can you do that? Is there something just inherently incongruent about, you know, that as a goal and sending out a tape - a CD like this? And that's the question. I mean, clearly, you have to be thick-skinned to run for president. And maybe you have to be a little more thick-skinned if you're a man of color or a woman of color. So that's - the question is, is the sincerity in expanding the tent.

CONAN: Tim, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Dawn Turner Trice of the Chicago Tribune about "Barack the Magic Negro" and the controversy that has ensued after the - one of the candidates for the Republican National Committee chair distributed a CD that included parodies, including that one, to other members of the RNC as Christmas gifts. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get Cathy on the line, Cathy from Lansing in Michigan.

CATHY (Caller): I just have a short comment. To me, satire is making fun of, maybe, someone's behavior or some gaffe that they've made and maybe making it funny. But when you make fun of or satire someone about something they have no control over, like their ethnicity, then that's not funny. That's my comment.

CONAN: OK, Cathy, thanks very much. But again, it could be pointed out, Dawn Tuner Trice, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Lyndon Banes Johnson - their accents were all made fun of, as indeed was John Kennedy's.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. And I understand the caller's sentiment here. But what's also interesting is that this is - this kind of - the reason why this is such - maybe this kind of - it hurts - for some people, it hurts so much is because it's - it goes along with the stereotypes about what it means to be an authentic black male.

And it's that definition of authenticity that always, trips, you know, people up. I mean, what does it mean to be authentic? Is it the Snoop Dogg type or the Al Sharpton, or even the Ben - Dr. Ben Carson type, or just the father who's rearing his children in a community and, you know, we may never know his name? And I think that that's one of those - that that's one of the reasons why people are so - I mean, feel so bad about this.

CONAN: Let me ask you about another thing that came up today, and that just, well, less than an hour ago - and the appointment of Roland Burris by Rod Blagojevich - we talked about this earlier with Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor, just before you came on - to replace Barack Obama in the United States Senate. And at the news conference, Bobby Rush, the Democratic congressman from Chicago, got up and said - made a point, saying that he would be the only person to integrate the United States Senate.

Ms. TRICE: Yes. Yeah. Well, I just - I wrote a commentary about this a while ago and just ticked off a lot of people because my feeling is that - I mean, this is not - this appointment should not be race-based. There are so many things going on in the country right now that's so dire and so important, that, I mean - you know, the person who left that seat, we have to keep in mind, is now president. (Laughing) And so, I mean he didn't just go off to go fly fishing.

So it's kind of - it's one of those things. And in Illinois politics, and not just Illinois politics, but politics in some places around the country, I mean, that - the whole notion of race just plays such a huge role. And I understand that. But - and Bobby Rush kind of, you know, he fed into that whole line of thinking as he was talking a few minutes ago at the press conference. But - and that's - to take nothing away from Roland Burris, who has just served with distinction. But the main thing here is to find someone who will do the job for the citizens of Illinois.

CONAN: But it appears that politicians of both parties are happy to use racial issues when it suits them.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. And that's - I mean, that's unfortunate, and that's been the way that the game has been played for too many years. And, I mean, we look forward to it being played differently.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller in. This is Ken, Ken with us from Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

KEN (Caller): Hi. Just a real quick comment. I think it's OK to satirize people, for whatever reason. The problem I have with this is that, when it's an elected official, you are representing the people. And if you are doing it in this manner, that's not really representative of all of those people that you are supposed to be representing.

CONAN: I'm sorry, who's supposed to be representing? The satirist or the politician?

KEN: Oh yes, yes. When an elected official, in this case, did this about Barack, the…

CONAN: Oh, he's not quite an elected official. He's a Republican National Committee member, I guess, but…

KEN: Well, right. Yes. But he still - isn't he…

CONAN: He's a party official.

KEN: OK. But he's representing the Republicans, isn't he?

CONAN: He would like to, yes.

Ms. TRICE: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEN: Yeah, well, I don't think that'll happen anymore. But…

CONAN: I suspect you may be right about that. (Laughing) We shall have to go see. Ken, thanks very much. We appreciate the phone call.

KEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Do you expect this conversation's going to have some legs, as they say, Dawn Turner Trice? Are we going to be talking about this for some time?

Ms. TRICE: Well, I think that there is an advantage to talking about this - maybe not in exactly this way, because probably you won't find anymore Republican contenders - maybe I could be wrong about that - I mean, being so - not so smart about this. But I do think that it's important to continue the discussion. And it's important to let, you know - to just let be known that there are still people out there who have these types of views, these narrow-minded views. And I think that that's important and maybe we can continue to talk about it.

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trice, as always, thank you for your time.

Ms. TRICE: Thank you.

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trice, a columnist who covers race relations for the Chicago Tribune, with us from her office at that newspaper. Tomorrow, the year in culture, plus how karaoke can change your life. Join us again. I'm Neal Conan. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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Flap Over 'Magic Negro' Song Roils RNC

Former Tennessee GOP Chairman Chip Saltsman announces a bid for chairmanship of the national party. i

Former Tennessee GOP Chairman Chip Saltsman (left) announces his bid for chairmanship of the Republican National Party with Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey by his side Dec. 8 in Nashville, Tenn. Shelley Mays/The Tennessean/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Shelley Mays/The Tennessean/AP
Former Tennessee GOP Chairman Chip Saltsman announces a bid for chairmanship of the national party.

Former Tennessee GOP Chairman Chip Saltsman announces his bid for chairmanship of the Republican National Party with former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist (left) and Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey by his side Dec. 8 in Nashville, Tenn.

Shelley Mays/The Tennessean/AP

In the search for someone to lead the Republican Party out of its political wilderness, the winnowing has begun.

Former Tennessee GOP Chairman Chip Saltsman appears on the brink of elimination from the competitive race for the national party chairmanship after sending GOP committee members a Christmas CD that contained the parody song "Barack the Magic Negro."

Saltsman most recently ran Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign.

"It was inappropriate," North Dakota GOP Chairman Gary Emineth says of the Saltsman gift. "It has really hurt his chances." Though Saltsman still has his supporters, including Huckabee, many party members have been much more blunt than Emineth.

Among them are Florida Republican Chairman Jim Greer, who called the song racially insulting and commended party leaders for opposition to "this type of behavior," and GOP strategist John Feehery, who characterized it as "a tremendous blunder that knocks Saltsman out."

'A Split In The Republican Party'

The song, performed by an Al Sharpton impersonator, was written by satirist and Saltsman friend Paul Shanklin to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon." It played off a Los Angeles Times opinion piece by freelance writer David Ehrenstein, who characterized Obama as an archetypal cinematic "Magic Negro" — a black man who assuages white guilt, like the character played by Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

The Shanklin parody got airtime on conservative talker Rush Limbaugh's radio show in 2007 and is now featured on Limbaugh's Web site.

Ehrenstein, an African-American and a gay rights activist, says the emergence of his essay into the GOP debate "represents a split in the Republican Party about what to do about Barack Obama."

Saltsman's stumble comes at a time when the Republican Party is struggling to define the role of loyal opposition to the nation's first African-American president. The party is uncomfortable with the minuscule share of the black vote it received in 2008, as well as the lack of African-Americans among GOP officeholders. No black members of Congress are Republican, and only a few black Republicans are in statewide office or on the Republican National Committee itself. Black membership in the Democratic National Committee is just over 21 percent, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

An Opening For Other Candidates

The Christmas CD controversy gave Saltsman's opponents an opportunity. Current RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, who is fighting to keep the post after a disastrous election year, said he was "shocked and appalled" by Saltsman's gift. Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, who also wants the top spot, found it in "bad taste."

Another candidate, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, was more circumspect, citing "hypersensitivity in the press regarding matters of race." Blackwell is one of two black candidates challenging Duncan, along with former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele of Maryland. Steele characterized Saltsman's gesture as a misplaced attempt at humor.

The other candidate for the RNC chairmanship, South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, who recently resigned from a private club after he said he discovered that it has a whites-only policy, has not commented.

'Bruised Feelings And Fingers Pointing' After Election Loss

The Saltsman imbroglio is only the latest example of turmoil surrounding the party's effort to pick a new leader.

"We lost an election, and there are now bruised feelings and fingers pointing in every direction," says Texas-based Republican pollster David Hill, who supports Anuzis in the chairmanship race.

"It's not just Bushies versus not Bushies, or old-line movement conservatives versus moderates, or D.C. insiders versus Main Street Americans," says Hill, who writes a weekly column for The Hill, a Washington-based congressional newspaper. "We've got multiple splits."

So distrustful were some national committee members about next month's RNC election process that a couple of dozen members, led by Emineth of North Dakota, petitioned to hold their own open RNC meeting with the candidates in advance of the full committee vote at the end of the month. The step is believed to be unprecedented.

The Jan. 7 meeting of this group would follow by one day an invitation-only gathering of members of the RNC's conservative steering committee, at which candidates are expected to be asked to defend their conservative bona fides. A much-anticipated public candidates debate, sponsored by Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform organization, is scheduled for Jan. 5 at the National Press Club. All six announced candidates are expected to participate.

The closed conservative steering committee meeting "rubbed me the wrong way," says Emineth, a steering committee member. "They were pushing to have a straw poll of invited members — when over half the membership was not invited. My concern was about agendas that might be at play, and that any poll would appear like an inside job."

"There needs to be a level playing field. It's the most important decision this party will make in several years," Emineth says, "and I wanted to push it back to the membership."

Under party rules, a national committee meeting can be called by members if members from 16 states sign on. Emineth says he corralled 19 members from 23 states.

Setting The Course For Years To Come

So where does this leave the candidates — and the direction of the party?

Duncan enjoys incumbency, but a number of members say they find his less-than-dynamic media persona troubling. Electing Steele or Blackwell as the RNC's first black chairman would have value for the moment, Hill says, but is no substitute for genuine outreach to younger voters and to those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

It's all up in the air, with or without Saltsman, and party officials are predicting that it will take more than one ballot to choose a leader.

"Trying to talk to Washington insiders and figure out what the strategy is and who's likely to be chairman is like trying to talk to your local parish priest about who is going to be the next pope," Hill says. "We'll just have to wait and watch the smoke signals."

Norquist says the RNC's choice will set the course for Republicans in years to come. "This decision is the closest thing you get to choosing a president," he says. "This person will be the party's spokesman, manage the party's budget, decide what staff and consultants get hired, what technology a million dollars will go into and won't go into."

His organization's debate will give candidates a public forum to tell party members where they believe the GOP should go, Norquist says, and which issues it should emphasize. "This is the beginning of the conversation about what the modern Republican Party does after the losses of 2006 and 2009," he says.

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