Watt Childress

Inquiring minds may wonder why Rush Limbaugh is still worthy of public attention. The pundit’s political smarts were proven to be sparse when he predicted that Hillary Clinton would not finish her first Senate run. His views on sports were likewise exposed as irrelevant after he was canned as NFL commentator for racist comments. Following his bout with the law over drugs, I thought his career was done. Yet the neoconservative Tiny Tim found a way back into the headlines.

Recently he offered his appraisal of Sen. Barack Obama, not just in terms of Obama’s politics but in terms of his skin color. Having lost his reach with the heartland, Limbaugh still knows which part to play in order to court his core audience. He’s the rich white guy with the guts to be a bigot.

Perhaps Limbaugh was missing his lost stardom as anti-PC crusader. With other shock jocks making big waves in the media, maybe Rush was suffering from Imus envy. Whatever the motivation, Rush rattled the sensibilities of mainstream conduct when he and satirist Paul Shanklin produced and broadcast "Barack the Magic Negro" to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon," mimicking the voice of Rev. Al Sharpton.

Rush must fancy himself a cool right-wing rebel who is willing to handle the color line with aplomb. The word "Negro" is obviously loaded with destructive potential when it is used to poison a political barb. Such usage merely serves to perpetuate a false division that once purported to distinguish citizens from livestock.

Far from cutting edge, all Limbaugh has done is revive the malignant craft of the old minstrel show. To attack Obama he has deployed a black-faced parody of a mythical "Negro" who assists white people in some magical way, yet always remains subordinate. Rush lifted this notion from an L.A. Times columnist, David Ehrenstein, who apparently thinks this kind of magic is responsible for Obama’s broad public appeal.

There is at least one major flaw with this reasoning. Obama is a frontrunner for our nation’s highest political office, not some marginalized ‘other’ who magically supports the lead player. As an African-American, Ehrenstein’s cynicism about mainstream culture may be useful so far as it cautions us about the superficial merchandising of melanin. Nevertheless, he should note how quickly the bigoted fringe will co-opt such cynicism out of context.

A deeper irony may be involved in efforts to tie Obama’s candidacy to the color line. It seems likely to me that for much of human history this line did not exist. People at either end of the melanin spectrum may have always been described as "fair" or "dark," just as people are described as short or tall. Long before the lies of racial theory were advanced, however, there were many folks in the middle. In another time and place, it seems reasonable to imagine that Barack Obama would have been someone whose skin was simply not a distinguishing feature.

In today’s America, Obama’s most defining characteristic is his work to replace polarization with civility. Pokes at the Senator’s skin color are a nasty distraction from his talent as a statesman. Such attacks are part of a fading fixation that might be further diminished by Obama’s brand of leadership.


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