Was the 'Barack the Magic Negro' Ditty Really Racist?

When conservatives say or do something racist or racially insensitive, they hand liberals the political equivalent of welfare -- a benefit (in this case, greater support from minorities) for which one doesn't have to work.

That hurts everyone -- the conservatives who scare off or turn off voters whom they might otherwise win over; liberals who grow lazy and complacent because they don't have to make their case to minorities to win their votes; and the minorities themselves who are written off by one side and taken for granted by another.

It's a dynamic that could play out again thanks to a little ditty called "Barack the Magic Negro" -- which found its way onto a CD which found its way into the Christmas stockings of members of the Republican National Committee, compliments of Chip Saltsman, a candidate for RNC chairman.  For Democrats, it could the gift that keeps on giving. That's because the lyrics -- and the fact that Saltsman would be thoughtless enough to distribute the song -- make Republicans look bad, and Democrats look good by comparison.

The song is a parody of "Puff the Magic Dragon" that pokes fun at the verbal thrashing that President-elect Barack Obama got from old school black leaders who -- when he first arrived on the national scene -- didn't respect him, trust him or think him viable.

The rap against Obama was that he wasn't black enough and that, as someone with a biracial background who was raised in Hawaii by white grandparents, he was at a loss to understand the black experience in America. And it only made Obama's critics in the black community even more suspicious that the young senator from Illinois had such magical appeal to white Americans.

Mimicking the voice of the Rev. Al Sharpton, the song -- which first aired on Rush Limbaugh's nationally syndicated radio show -- begins like this:

Barack the Magic Negro lives in D.C.

The L.A. Times, they called him that 'Cause he's not authentic like me.

Yeah, the guy from the L.A. paper Said he makes guilty whites feel good.

They'll vote for him, and not for me 'Cause he's not from the hood.

The tune is certainly provocative and amusing. The problem is that, for those who want to condemn it as racist -- as many on the Left tried to do -- it's hard to get there with a straight line.

After all, this controversy didn't begin with Chip Saltsman and the Republican National Committee. It didn't even start with Paul Shanklin, the comedian who recorded the CD. The whole concept of "Barack the Magic Negro" originated on the Left, as a way for some to question Obama's racial authenticity and deride the eagerness with which some white people used their support for Obama's candidacy to demonstrate how progressive they were and assuage feelings of guilt over a history of racial discrimination.

This was all spelled out in detail by "the guy from the LA Paper" -- Los Angeles-based writer David Ehrenstein, himself an African-American. In March 2007, just one month after Obama declared his candidacy for president, Ehrenstein wrote an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times. He wrote that, besides running for president, Obama was also "running for an equally important unelected office, in the province of the popular imagination -- the 'Magic Negro' ... while having to endure criticism (white and black alike) concerning his alleged 'inauthenticity.'" And like the dragon in the 1960s folk song, Obama is -- according to Ehrenstein -- make believe. That's the whole point. "The less real he seems," Ehrenstein writes, "the more desirable he becomes."

So if the concept of "Barack the Magic Negro" is racist, then who exactly is the racist? Chip Saltsman? Paul Shanklin? David Ehrenstein? Or maybe those African-American powerbrokers, like Rev. Al Sharpton, who questioned whether Obama was really black and applied a litmus test to find out?

Maybe it's all of the above, or none of the above.

Maybe what we should be worried about, instead, is how quickly those on the Left jump at the chance to paint the opposing camp as hostile to minorities -- so they can score cheap political points, manipulate the slighted, and continue to reap a benefit that is unearned.

Now that's offensive.