A Ku Indeed!

Them Magic Negros

Posted in Politics by Chris on January 1, 2009

racismRacism truly makes me sick. There are few things that get me more upset than it. With that in mind, this whole “Barack the Magic Negro” debacle has my stomach twisted. Not so much that the song exists — this is to be expected, given the number of racists in the country — but rather due to the refusal off the RNC chair candidate (who distributed it) to reject it. It says to me that he’s made a political calculation and determined that a certain degree of racism is simply seen as a badge of honor among Republicans. As a result, it’s not politically wise to disavow one’s racism. After all, them uppity Negros (and their uppity Negro lovin’ liberal friends) just need to take personal responsibility for their comical level of defensiveness, right? It’s not the RNC’s fault they can’t take a joke. Yglesias has a good post on this, worth the read.


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  1. Swad said, on January 1, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Living in Chicago’s southside has certainly given me experience in racism, but I don’t see this as being too hurtful.

    1. You’re right that racism, however subtle, should never be a badge of honor. However, it’s hard to say if that’s the case here; it may rather be that this guy’s stock has risen based on the controversy (a la “Fahrenheit 9/11” or “The Passion”) or that the GOP is rallying behind someone they see as unfairly treated by the media/liberals/whomever (a la Sarah Palin).
    2. What definition of racism are we working with here? Hatred toward someone (or some group) based on their race? It’s hard to see how this song qualifies as hatred. Insensitive and stupid, yes, but hateful?
    3. Our racism radar is more likely to go off because the joke deals with race, but that doesn’t make it racist, though. After all, if Al Sharpton had actually written the song himself (since it’s from his perspective), he would not likely be called a racist.

    P.S. Your falling snow really eats up CPU power on a Mac (and probably Linux) since Adobe doesn’t optimize Flash too well for non-Windows machines.

    P.P.S. Happy New Year!

  2. Chris said, on January 1, 2009 at 3:35 pm


    Here is my cynical take:

    1. Using the term “Negro” is suspicious to me, given that it is an outdated term from the time when Blacks had no (or few) civil rights. To a northern ear like mine, “Negro” is one step removed from another word that starts with N.

    2. I think that many Republican voters — not all, but a fair chunk — harbor resentments against blacks, for one reason or other (maybe it’s affirmative action, or something similar). So I think these sorts of things play well with such people.

    3. I also think, in combination with (2), that “refusing to back down” to the PC police plays well with such folks, partly for racist reasons and partly because it simply annoys liberal people.

    4. Basically, and I hate to say it, but my view of a fair chunk of Republican voters is not positive when it comes to racism. Given that the GOP has not exactly been “embracing” of the black community (with respect to its past struggles), it is insensitive at _best_ to engage in this sort of nonsense. At worst, which is what I suspect it is, it’s something different. I think Yglesias has this one right in his piece.

    On your (3), context matters. For one Jew to call another one “Kike” is one thing, say — for a German to do it is quite another. I don’t think words operate in a vacuum. This is like the N-word. For a black to call another black the N-word is one thing (it might even be stupid), but for a white person to do it is a world of a different thing. The utterer matters, not just the uttered, as it were.

    I’m tired of the snow. I’m going to shut it off.

    How is your break going? Did you have a good holiday?

    Happy New Year to you too!

    I’ve been on a real tear on Facebook chess lately, btw. Pwning people left and right.

  3. Swad said, on January 1, 2009 at 4:02 pm


    Agreed on 1) and 2). Negro has the same association to my southern-midwest-transplanted-to-the-north ears, and there’s no doubt that this was an incredibly stupid move. That said, re: your 3) and 4), though there are undoubtedly still some racists that vote for the GOP, my experience growing up in that party gives me a different picture. At least in the areas that aren’t in the deep south, racist Republicans (at least the vocal ones) aren’t too prevalent. That said, there are still many Republicans who resent blacks for affirmative action reasons (or, more generally, seeing “special treatment”), and unfortunately most racists seem to align with the GOP in their other political views. This taints, and songs like this do nothing but hurt that perception. (I won’t defend the party since I don’t really identify with it (and haven’t since high school, despite running the DU GOP) but it doesn’t seem that Yglesias is presupposing innocence here, perhaps rightly)

    With regard to the use of Negro, the utterer does matter, but it shouldn’t. I would argue that there are no dangerous words, only dangerous ideas (and, indeed, making words themselves dangerous is dangerous itself). If the idea behind the song is malicious, we should be against it regardless of the utterer. If not, well, perhaps we should reevaluate why our hackles are raised. (I was going to try and pull J. L. Austin into this paragraph, but I would just sound ignorant. Raise this point again after I get my Ph.D. and I’ll try again. πŸ™‚

    My break was good – I head back to Chicago tomorrow. How was yours?

    Facebook chess? Hmmm, I’ll have to check it out! I’ve been playing multiplayer on my iPhone, which has been fun, but I haven’t been playing too much lately… I’m developing a new website which has taken most of my time. Another venture of “Jason Swadley Inc” I suppose. πŸ™‚

  4. Chris said, on January 3, 2009 at 7:13 am


    If Negro has that tinge in the ear of a southern-midwest-transplanted-to-the-north ear, I would suspect it has the same tinge for just about everyone. Which makes its use — especially in a political context — more suspicious.

    I’m not sure where racist Republicans hide out. I know they are in the south. Past that, I’m not sure. Still: given that the CD was made by a candidate for the RNC chair, it tells me something about perception: he _thinks_ that racism is okay with the base of the party, and at least a majority of the general membership will shrug it off. This bothers me quite a bit. Politically, if one wants to be Machiavellian, as a liberal one might hope they continue to distribute such CDs, with “the Magic Negro” and “the Star Spanglish Banner” on them — and hope that they laugh heartily and get righteous when people are offended by them. Why? The Republican party cannot succeed in the future if it continues to ostracize minorities (by 2050 whites will be the minority in the US). So they continue this sort of careless behavior at their own peril.

    On utterances: I think that the effect of a word is partly due to its perceived connotation, and this is, I think, determined in part by intention and context. It seems undeniable to me that when one black says the N word to another, it means one thing; when a white guy says it, it takes on a different connotation, particularly if that white person has a history of racist intention.

    Perhaps there’s a Confucian point hiding in here somewhere. For Confucius, a ritual behavior has no meaning unless it is done with a certain spirit and intentionality. As he says in one place (2.7), giving your parents something to eat with no feeling is no different from caring for one’s pets, as if the actual behavior changes in meaning due to the difference in intention. For that behavior to have meaning in the filial way requires the right intentions to be behind it.

    I wonder if words (which can be seen as linguistic behaviors) can at least partly be given a similar analysis?

    Whenever you feel like being pwned, download the Facebook application and request a game! πŸ™‚

    Happy New Year!

  5. Swad said, on January 3, 2009 at 8:28 am


    Interesting point with the ole’ Confucius. The action certainly _feels_ different with different intentions, so there’s a lot of intuitive support for that position. With regard to utterances and utterers, though, I just worry that when specific words (and not their underlying ideas) become dangerous, we open ourselves to a sort of linguistic McCarthyism that evokes an emotion but stifles discourse. Words already carry strong connotations (say “Halliburton” and see what someone does) and I’m with Sapir-Worf that language shapes reality. So when we start removing words from our vocabulary, however vile their context or utterer, it could lead to an Orwellian doublespeak of only socially (or, eventually, politically, because this sort of thing inevitably involves the government) politically allowed.

    I’m on my way to facebook. πŸ™‚

  6. Chris said, on January 3, 2009 at 7:59 pm


    I’m not interested in stifling discourse (or removing words from vocabularies). But I am interested in removing “plausible deniability” from racists who use words in Machiavellian ways. This is what I think has happened here: when the guy from the RNC uses “Magic Negro” he must know that he, as the potential chair of the RNC, is vying for the leadership of a party that has hardly had a happy relationship with race. Remember Willie Horton and the whole Southern Strategy? He’s not an idiot. He knows that this will send a “signal” to certain folks, a “signal” that he thinks is politically advantageous. Moreover, if he can hide behind the argument that “PC monitoring leads to the Thought Police” he can offer up plausible deniability. You know — he wasn’t being racist, he was just being flip.

    I don’t want to make it seem that I am not sensitive to your concerns here. I am. But I’m also sensitive to how your very concerns — legitimate as they are — are often used as shields by various people in political discourse to hurl racism for political advantage.

    With respect to chess: prepare to be pwned!

  7. Swad said, on January 4, 2009 at 7:18 pm


    Agreed on all accounts. And I’ve never seen you stifle discourse – you’ll just need to stifle the obscenities when the full and terrible wrath of my pieces bear down on your side of the board. πŸ™‚

    I am curious, though, cause I’m fleshing it out in my own mind: do you buy the argument above about dangerous thoughts and words?


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