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A Black President Is Not a Magical Negro

Rupert Murdoch's tweets about Ben Carson signified a dangerous stereotype

Brendan Smialowski/Getty

News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch’s comments about Republican presidential contender Ben Carson—that he could be “a real black president who can properly address the racial divide”—recall the night that Barack Obama used a bit of magic to make an impossible dream finally seem within reach. Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was America’s first wide exposure to his signature oratorical skills, but that grandiloquence was nothing compared to the trick he pulled in perhaps its most remembered passage. In asserting the oneness of the United States of America and implying that the union is free from political or racial separation or iniquity, Obama offered preemptive disagreement to the populist claim of “two Americas” that then-vice presidential nominee John Edwards would issue the very next night in his remarks. And he did so out of a black mouth, no less. The most talented African American politician you or I likely have ever seen was making it clear that he didn’t believe we citizens live in an American reality stratified by race, political belief, or heritage. This, of course, sounded recklessly optimistic and a bit insane all at once. I knew immediately he’d be our first black president.

In 2007, shortly after Obama announced his first White House campaign, David Ehrenstein wrote a column in the Los Angeles Times declaring that the senator from Illinois was running for two offices: The presidency, and the title of “Magic Negro.” This was no casual racial slurring; the term “magical Negro,” as Ehrenstein notes, has a lengthy cultural history, particularly in American popular culture; the “magical Negro” typically appears in stories purely to aid white protagonists. She or he is imbued with powers that are either physically or sociologically supernatural, superseding racial obstacles in a single bound with some folksy golf advice, a home-cooked meal, or a healing touch. Ehrenstein positioned Obama as the heir to Sidney Poitier’s Hollywood portrayals of well-mannered black men who triumphed through their “yeoman service to his white benefactors,” all while projecting none of the overt sexuality or danger that the Jim Browns of the world embodied in other films. 

I don’t bring this concept up idly; on Thursday, a Republican pundit used Ehrenstein’s column to defend Murdoch from criticism over this tweet.

Murdoch is the chairman of News Corp., which operates the Fox News Channel. Even if we leave aside FNC’s role as a propaganda machine for cultural stagnation and white supremacy, the sentiments he expressed about Carson and Obama were ludicrously offensive. No one should be arbiting who is a “real” black anything, let alone an 84-year-old white conservative billionaire. But the bit about “properly address[ing] the racial divide” was not an uncommon criticism of Obama, nor an endorsement of Carson. It spoke to how deeply the right uses the “magical Negro” idea to misconstrue race, all to the benefit of the status quo. 

Black people are frequently positioned as the conciliators in the long story of American racial conflict. Whether on the streets of Ferguson or in the aisle of a grocery store, no matter how great or small the tension, white supremacy makes it our job to calm it. Being thus charged with peacekeeping while surviving in a system built to suppress them, magical Negroes cannot ever be perceived as threatening to the white establishment.

It is why Carson, the famed neurosurgeon and author, was so perfect for the role. He rose from a poor background in Detroit to becoming perhaps the most noted neurosurgeon in America, becoming a symbol of black achievement before, as we realize now, we knew much about the man doing the achieving. Brain surgery, the colloquial synonym for brilliance, was his job. And he was rightfully famous for it. BuzzFeed’s Joel Anderson described him well in a profile earlier this year: “An icon of black triumph, Horatio Alger in hospital scrubs.” His 1990 book, Gifted Hands, was the text that inevitably found its way under my gaze and that of nearly every other black child that I knew. I recall seeing copies not only at the library, but also at my church. Like Jesus, Carson was magic.

Conversely, it was clear that the “magical Negro” title was out of the question for Obama when he was elected president in 2008 and became an ostensible threat to white supremacy. Arriving with (for some) yet-unfulfilled expectations from the black constituency that drove him to victory, the president advocated for policies decidedly un-enchanting to the right, and it soon became evident that his mere corporeal presence in the Oval Office would not end racial bias or injustice—as some on both sides of the aisle had theorized. The “black president will kill racism” narrative was a joke to black folks in particular, given the inherent societal pessimism many of us share. But not to some, even today, who believe that the most prominent black leaders in any arena alone are charged with most assiduously attending to the racial divide. 

The problem here is that prior to Obama, we’d considered a black president an almost mythical figure for so long that we’d imbued her or him with accompanying supernatural powers. For an ambitious child, believing that is a path to potential disappointment and a lack of fulfillment. For an adult, it’s that and more. It’s a recipe for failure. Perhaps Murdoch does that intentionally here, or not. But by conceiving the idea of a black president—now made real by Obama—as the Great Conciliator, it makes it easy to point to a burning Baltimore, a furious Ferguson, or even a bungled beer summit and say that Obama hasn’t done his job. But it was never his job, and the responses he offered, while certainly imperfect, were to crises borne from white misbehavior and criminality.

Before Murdoch eventually apologized for the tweet Wednesday night, there was an attempt to clarify. Here, he was a bit more complimentary of the president.

Murdoch’s binary assessment of black experience through these two avatars for black excellence was a conservative authenticity test for blackness, in distilled form. My colleague Jeet Heer wrote earlier this year that part of white supremacy is white people exerting power by defining who is black. Rather than shed the Great Conciliator idea, Murdoch and fellow conservatives would rather have in Obama’s place an African American president who fits their notions of what blackness is. Carson fits the bill because his is a blackness of poor circumstances and personal responsibility, minus the racial grievances. He doesn’t complain about the structural inequality that his drive and skills enabled him to escape, at least financially. As Carson patronizes Black Lives Matter and spews varied macho insanities about guns in the wake of the latest mass shooting, he remains all but silent on white supremacy. Given his political performance and his career legacy, he’s an ideal conservative magical Negro for the Fox News era: A man (given the GOP’s rampant misogyny, that part is important) who performs the conservative ideal of racial progress, denigrating himself while remaining content to enable continued injustices.

He doesn’t demonstrate the local TV-ad clownishness of a Herman Cain, but Carson is now busying himself making a joke of his campaign. Murdoch surely realizes this, and further exposing his network as a GOP prop, tried to offer up support. But in doing so, the News Corp. chairman exposed precisely why the new black conservative is a pox on our communities. In a time past, a man like Carson might have used his wealth and prestige to establish a predominantly black university, similar to Booker T. Washington. He’d preach a similar message of self-reliance—but under the auspices of independence and community-based uplift, not capitulation to a white power structure. But as Heer noted on Twitter last night, that isn’t the black conservatism we see today, and not the one from which Carson profits. That’s the case because the right, despite feinting efforts by the RNC, is ultimately more interested in scapegoating people of color than engaging them, appealing almost exclusively to a white base. As a result, they typically only welcome black leaders who will help them in that effort. Murdoch has an entire television network that does this daily. We should be mindful not to swallow the racial narratives of those who serve to buttress white supremacy, lest we find ourselves dependent upon actual magic to address our very real racial dilemmas.