Monday, April 30, 2007

The Magic Rhetoric of Radio Racism

Yes, the quick, efficient opprobrium (total condemnation) of last month’s Radio Racist was quite satisfying. The feminists broke it down; corporate sponsors did the math; Black producers wrote his pink slip; and Don Imus was out the door. However, it seems that always someone else is waiting in the wings to work the racist-sexist nexus. So, thanks to Rush Limbaugh last week, USAmericans have a new, fresh controversy and reason, as the Nation put it, to be “disheartened that so soon after the Imus controversy came and went the so-called shock jocks and right wing nuts went right back to business as usual, didn't blink an eye and continued to use racism to insult and humiliate.”

While I challenge any listener to find less than five intentional offenses upon a single hearing of “Barack the Magic Negro,” the racist parody created by Paul Shanklin and aired on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program this past week, here I see an opportunity to use a close reading of this text to resist racist “business as usual,” and consequently to stave off this low point in media -induced cycles of hope and despair. Here I suggest that we examine how high-profile media events such as these throw up a smokescreen of loud, abhorrent racism, while just below the surface they perform a rhetorical sleight of hand--that is, the subtle "magic" of continuity and repetition that keeps the ideas, images and language of racism alive despite real, illusory or desired social change on the part of most mainstream USAmericans. In other words, these media events “educate” by introducing and habituating us to stereotypes, ignorance, false generalizations, and slander disguised as objective facts, useful terminologies and historical information related to race.

Magical Chain of Substitutions: Black Equals Negro, Etc.

What is most audacious about the Shanklin piece, “Barack the Magic Negro,” is more than merely the unacceptable invocation of the word "Negro." Rather, we should take note of and probably offense to the blatant announcement of an unapologetic and intentional, slippery slide among the terms Negro, Black, African-American, etc. What it is less transparent, however, is the fact that the actual parody, like the title itself, plays across several historical and current conversations about race without making reference to them. As a means of detecting the magical mechanism of rhetorical racism, I suggest we look at the obvious. I propose that we examine how this author creates a "chain of signifiers" — a series of substitutions among words, names and individuals that mean or invoke something only slightly different each time they are used yet lose their referents along the way. (I am arguing that this process reinvigorates an old-time racist logic that the majority of USAmericans would reject if they could see it.)

Reading Radio Racism

As listeners we are invited in several ways to read this piece as everyday political satire, which uses tools conventional to the genre and surfaces issues that are already out there. First, listen to it. The tune “Puff the Magic Dragon” (a popular children’s song known to have multiple layers of potential meaning) immediately cues listeners that the skit is a “parody” and is meant to be “funny.” In which case, attacking either Senator Obama, a presidential candidate, or Rev. Al Sharpton, also a prominent public figure, are par for the political course. Furthermore, because mainstream media attributed at least some of the rapidity of action in the Imus case to the words and volume of Rev. Sharpton’s critique, casting a disparaging impression of him could be seen as a straightforward and prophylactic attack by people protecting their occupational niche (albeit undeniably racist). Specifically, recent gains regarding the use of stereotypes in the media, which vaguely might be attributed to Sharpton and that radio racists might find especially threatening, include coupling public decency with social equality concerns and raising a general sense of hope that the USA is approaching a sociological "tipping point" where racism will be considered obsolete and unsavory.

Clearly, in the Shanklin skit, Rev. Al Sharpton and Senator Barack Obama are represented unfavorably, but is it reasonable to suggest that they are cast as mutually affirming stereotypes that have shed their social and historical referents? (Which stereotypes? Well, how many are you familiar with?)

Solving the Mystery: What Are We Learning without Even Noticing?

As easy and appropriate as it may be to criticize public officials and to mock someone as fearless, distinct, and problematic as Rev. Sharpton has proved himself to be, I propose that our rhetorical sleuthing begins (and ends) with the moment that he is cast as 1) a buffoon with 2) the word "Negro" in his mouth and 3) the argument about "racial authenticity" on his lips.

While some may argue that deep rhetorical sophistication is beyond the scope and capacity of the particular authors in this case, it is important to note the significant argumentation that the skit accomplishes. As Obama’s bumbling critic, the embarrassing character of Sharpton distributes a vague sense of shame which is potentially felt by all, including ineffectual politicians, Black people, anti-racists, “conservative” humans, etc. However, what we are supposed to miss is that Sharpton is cast, not as an unflattering version of himself, but as an ugly stereotype that requires symbolic work to unpack and that distracts us from noticing whether his perspective, or any information for that matter, is represented with accuracy in this skit. Furthermore, while the Shanklin parody doesn't site its references, the recent LA Times article "Obama the Magic Negro" does. The latter directs us to consult Wikipedia for an explanation of the "Magical Negro," where this term refers to a fictional literary character or archetype, specifically a Black male protagonist who serves the racist interests of a White-dominated society at his own expense. This is indeed a heady matter. By drawing an archetypal and polarizing tension between two stereotypical characters, the skit manages to impart that conversations about race are ridiculous and/or divisive; that "insider" race terms and conversations have lost their protected status; and that the foibles of any Black person can be used to discredit the merits of any other (c.f., classic racism).

Unlike creating fictional characters in movies or books, I argue that casting actual public figures as racial stereotypes is an intentional and complex, rhetorical violence that makes “sense” just below our conscious vigil. The real offense of this particular skit, then, is that by mis/representing the views of real political figures and associating them with obscure references to forgotten racializing language, images, and terms, this so-called "parody" reaches deep into the social, psychological substrate and has the potential to (mysteriously or magically) mis/educate us about important debates at the intersection of race and politics right now when it matters most.

While I decline to read further into this parody which I assure you draws on other explicitly racist stereotypes, I encourage you to check out the suggested readings and related links posted below that introduce any interested reader to conversations and study regarding stereotypes of people of African descent in USAmerican history. I highly recommend the book by Bogle and the film, Bamboozled, by Spike Lee. (I also invite your comments.)

Related Links & References
Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (1992).
"Barack: The Magic Negro" Alternet Article w/ Audio Link
Spike Lee on Stereotypes (in the news 2001)
13 Movies with Magical Black Men. . .

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