Limbaugh targets the role race plays in Obama candidacy

[6 May 2007]

By Christi Parsons

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

WASHINGTON - Weeks after radio personality Rush Limbaugh began airing a parody titled “Barack the Magic Negro,” the song about African-American Sen. Barack Obama’s popularity with many white voters is drawing fire from critics who say it is racist.

The audio clip features a comedian imitating the singing voice of Rev. Al Sharpton, bemoaning Obama’s popularity with whites who will, the lyrics predict, “vote for him and not for me `cause he’s not from da hood.”

Obama’s campaign called the song “dumb,” although a spokesman said the campaign doesn’t think anyone is taking the song seriously.

But Limbaugh’s critics say the song goes too far - particularly because the piece is spreading on the Internet at a time when Obama faces heightened security concerns fueled in part by hateful remarks and threats directed at him.

“We take these things seriously because there’s a consistent pattern of them making their way into the mainstream media and then the mainstream consciousness,” said Karl Frisch, a spokesman for Media Matters, a nonprofit media watchdog group that has been monitoring the broadcasts. “It’s important to shoot these things down.”

Limbaugh’s repeated playing of the song strikes some as especially surprising, coming so close after the firing of radio host Don Imus.

Imus called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed ho’s” on the air, triggering a public furor that eventually resulted in his dismissal.

Obama, meanwhile, has been the subject of explicit, angry comments not only in e-mails and letters but in Web postings. Samples of those writings were reviewed by members of Congress last week when they recommended that the Illinois Democrat be given protection by a U.S. Secret Service detail.

The ramped-up security comes as friends of Obama have been expressing concerns about his safety on the presidential campaign trail, partly because of the size of the crowds he is drawing but also because many of the periodic threats against him carry racial overtones.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said last week that he brought his concerns about Obama’s safety to Senate leaders, who agreed with the Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security that the presidential hopeful needed a special security detail.

“Unfortunately, many of the things that concerned me had a lot to do with race,” Durbin said earlier in the week . “I wish we lived in a country where that is not a problem, but it still is. And the fact that Barack Obama is such a highly visible African-American candidate, I think, increases his vulnerability.”

So virulent have been some of the postings on Web sites that last week CBSNews.com told its staff not to enable comments on stories about Obama. The candidate was drawing an overwhelming number of racist remarks.

As for Limbaugh and the controversial song, it started in March shortly after the Los Angeles Times published a provocative column by a black writer calling Obama the “Magic Negro.” The article said Obama fits the prototype of the black cinematic figure who arises to “assuage white guilt over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history.”

Columnist David Ehrenstein suggested Obama is running in the public imagination for the office of “Magic Negro” - a kind of benign African-American figure who is there to help and for whom even mild criticisms are waved away “magically.”

The term “Magic Negro” in cinematic circles dates to the 1950s.

Not long after that column was published, Limbaugh began to air “Barack the Magic Negro,” sung to the tune of “Puff, the Magic Dragon.”

The song was familiar to his listeners before critics began to pick up on it in recent days.

Callers to Sharpton’s radio show recently expressed their concern over Limbaugh’s parody and urged Sharpton to get involved.

They said that they found Limbaugh’s words degrading and that they feared his superiors would do nothing to prevent the conservative radio talk show host from making further derogatory statements.

Sharpton said he would not make an issue out of the comments without discussing it with Obama, just as he said he discussed the Imus issue with the Rutgers coach before going public with his objections.

Sharpton said he did not want to talk about it and then have Obama come out later and say it was not an issue for him.

Efforts to reach Limbaugh and Sharpton on Friday were unsuccessful.

But aides to Obama said they were not bothered by the parody, a slide-show version of which is available at YouTube.com.

“It’s not the first dumb thing said during the course of this campaign and it likely won’t be the last,” Obama spokesman Bill Burton said. “But, frankly, I don’t think anyone takes this too seriously.”

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(Chicago Tribune national correspondent Dahleen Glanton and Tribune political reporter Rick Pearson contributed to this report.)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/limbaugh-targets-the-role-race-plays-in-obama-candidacy/