The Magical Negro Falls to Earth

But victory for Obama in 2012 would signify more racial progress than it did in 2008

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JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

President Barack Obama waves upon his return at the White House in Washington, DC, on Sept. 25, 2012.

If President Obama had to run against Senator Obama of 2008, he’d probably be crushed. Back then, Obama seemed superhuman; today he is merely mortal. His victory in 2008 was historic, breaking the race barrier in the nation’s highest office. But an Obama victory in 2012 would say something even more profound about how far our country has come.

Granted, Obama’s election (or not) is merely one of many factors that will tell us where we are on race in America. But it is a big one. In 2008, Obama had to overcome racial bias that a recent study by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in economics, suggests may have cost him as many as 3 to 5 percentage points in the election.

Obama had to be extraordinary, which reminds me of something my mother told me when I was a boy: that being black meant I had to be twice as good to get ahead. Obama more than just good; in many ways, he was the embodiment of that staple of film and literature, the magical Negro.

(MOREHow To Read Political Racial Code)

The magical Negro is a character full of knowledge and wisdom, sometimes with supernatural powers, whose job is to help a white protagonist reach his full potential. Jim in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is the classic example. More recently, there were Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile and Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus in The Matrix, who offers Keanu Reeves’ Neo a red pill that will change his life.

In 2008, Obama was Morpheus and America was Neo, a nation of great potential that had lost its mojo and did not understand reality. Obama offered America the red pill — the chance to vote for him — and we swallowed it. In The Matrix, the red pill took effect immediately, and it wasn’t long before Neo revealed himself to be the One — the Jesus-like figure Morpheus had thought he was. In the real world, change happens much more slowly. When Obama took office, it felt as if the sky were falling and we were close to a depression. We avoided that fate. But it has been a rough few years marked by problems (not all of his making) that include a historic recession, Washington gridlock, the passage of controversial health care legislation, the failure to close the Guantánamo prison, the Middle East explosion and the rhetorical blunder of “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” by which the great orator handed the GOP a gift it could mangle into a slogan. After all that, it’s impossible to view Obama as a superhuman magical-Negro figure anymore.

(MOREWill Black Voters Punish Obama For His Support of Gay Rights?)

Obama has been brought down to earth, and he now admits, as he said in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, invoking the words of Abraham Lincoln, “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.” Yet despite his failings and mortal humility, Obama remains the favorite to win: he leads 48% to 45% in the latest Gallup poll and 48.9% to 44.9% in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.

All incumbents have natural advantages, but for Obama, incumbency is a double-edged sword. Given the super-human expectations placed on him when he took office, it’s not surprising that he has disappointed some of his followers.

So those poll numbers suggest something very interesting about this country in terms of racial progress. They show American voters embracing a non-magical black man. The magical Negro concept arose from a need to rectify supposed black inferiority with the undeniability of black wisdom by suggesting that wisdom is so alien that its origins cannot be explained by normal scientific methods.

While some may think it complimentary to be considered “magical,” it is infantilizing and offensive because it suggests black excellence is so shocking it can only come from a source that is supernatural. To accept a black leader who is extraordinary yet so human that he cannot be magical is an entirely different prospect than electing a black superhero. Anyone would vote for a superhero who lived up to my mom’s standard of having to be twice as good. But for it to embrace a nonmagical black person who cannot promise anything but hope, intelligence, sweat and experience, now that comes closer to equality. Equality is freedom from having to be twice as good to get ahead.

MORE: Is Romney Doomed? Not Yet 

349 comments
JasonOKing
JasonOKing

"President Obama's Re-Election Would Signify Racial Progress", yes. But the heading "The Magical Negro Falls to Earth" obviates that racial sensitivity is regressing, and racial ignorance thrives within the TIME Mag's editing staff. #sick #ignorant
 @toure your a real donkey (if you know what I mean) for publishing such garbage.

CrackerBarrel
CrackerBarrel

As a  54yr old white male, grew just south of baltimore, i am part of the white male majority. With a 4yr college degree, I am still part of a pro-obama, pro-democratic, razor thin majority expected to return the president to the white house. his greatest failure, in my opinion, has been his unwillingness to use his moral authority as a the first non-white president. Hard to call him black, as he is from a mixed race household, hell, his mother was a white anthropologist. My mother was a local prosecutor. He an i had very similar up bringing. I expected the guy to do something about the state of american schools, the school to prison pipeline, the drug war, the healthcare problem, fossil fuel dependence, political corruption, war on muslims, police corruption and racial bias, and the ridiculous tax code. What i expected him to do, if not fix all of that, was to TALK about these problems. The Scandinavian countries have worked out these problems. I hope and pray the guy is reelected. But he has been almost as great a dissappointment to me as were the carter and the clintons. He has only continued the Bush administration's the unjust, undemocratic, illegal projection of American military power overseas and federal police power at home. Viciously prosecutes leaks and whistle blowers, deported more immigrants than any president in history. Honestly, if I had a choice, I give his wife a shot at the office, before I would send any of the current candidates, including the Green and Justice party candidates. 

gronkinator
gronkinator

Just for the record, Will Smith was the original choice for Neo in the Matrix; he turned down the lead in order to do Wild Wild West.  It was not scripted with the same character roles that you claim it shows, so it is a bad example to use to illustrate your point.

diablo135
diablo135

So did I get the gist of this article correct? Vote for Obama this time to smooth race relations and that he failed becuase he was thought of as too good?

Mburn135
Mburn135

This article is directly aimed at all those guilty white liberals that voted for O in 2008 and that are now thinking of straying off the reservation in 2012 because O turned out the be, you know, kind of lousy as an actual president.

New flash for you Toure.  You are not "twice as good."  So how do you explain having gotten ahead?

Jazz King
Jazz King

0bama's race is not relevant except to other blacks like Toure.

0bama's policies have "fundamentally transformed the U.S." into decadence and depression, yet all the narcissistic Toure can see is his own skin shade.  How sad.  For all of us.

Altold
Altold

Head or tail, Obama will win!

davecross
davecross

You would never concede that the super-human expectations placed on him were of his own doing.  He is the one that promised to clean the air, stop the seas from rising, cure the financial crisis in one year.  The only prediction he made that will come true is that, if he couldn't fix the economy in three years, he would be a one term president.

gopresbarack
gopresbarack

I don't care if you are black. This is racist and disgusting. And for the record, I'm white and female.

lawoman32
lawoman32

Romney's going in flames because an elitist venture capitalist robber baron who has never had to work a real job in his life and neither has his spoiled, over privileged, out-of-touch wife.  They haven't a clue as to how most of us work and struggle because they've existed in a bubble of privilege all of their lives.  Mitt evaded service in Vietnam by pedaling around France trying to gull the French into converting to his cult like religion.  Yet, as a student, he appeared in demonstrations favoring the war.  The man's a fraud and a charlatan.  Thank God we are going to be spared having this dreadful couple occupying the White House.

James O Brien
James O Brien

I think Mitt Romney is the worst opposition candidate republicans could find. Seriously, he's handing it to Obama at a time when unemployment is stagnant and debt is at an all time high. All Obama has to do is say "If I'm not re-elected, this guy will be your president". I'm saying this yet I'm an Obama supporter, the republicans should be ashamed at the state of the candidate they chose.

lawoman32
lawoman32

Obama has been very competent and if it weren't for the obstructionist Congress, we'd have an American Jobs Act and unemployment would be plummeting.  I'm one of the many whites who strongly favors the President, and it has nothing to do with race.   He favors fairness, has passed the first real healthcare reform against daunting odds, and has done away with more terrorist leaders than Bush and Cheney ever dreamt of doing.  He will also appoint judges who will not be Corporate shills.  Also, he'll uphold a woman's right to reproductive choice.  He will be reelected.

danbfas
danbfas

Toure claims Obama had to be "extraordinary" in 2008 because he's black. I say it's just the opposite. He was totally ordinary, or worse, when it came to his qualifications for President. In fact, the main reason he WAS elected President is because he's black. If you don't believe me, just go back to the Democrat primary campaign, and imagine Obama as "just another white guy".  Yep, Hillary Clinton would be President right now.

Sean Cash
Sean Cash

You are right .. electing obama means more debt, more  unemployent, more food stamps, more  riots in the mid east....and more despair...

superpanman
superpanman

Perhaps anyone elected to just one term isn't legitimately elected, or is that only the case when it is a person of color, or perhaps a woman? Maybe, just maybe, the day will come when anyone who achieves anything in life doesn't get that achievement attached to race, color or religious belief. Or maybe most of us have already moved past that and these are just old, tired ideas that keep getting paraded out in hopes of keeping them alive. My advice to you, Mr. Toure,  is that you bury these old ideas and move forward with the rest of us. Perhaps when you take off the "race glasses" you will see a world that has already moved beyond those old ideas. We will never be entirely free of racists and bigots, but making out that they hold that much sway in this country today is incorrect at best, and only allows them to gain ground.

superpanman
superpanman

I guess that means that Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians and women will all have to have their "magical" equivalents in the oval office for at least one term before we can finally put an end to the idea that the only legitimately elected minority is one that makes it to a second term.

stevchipmunk
stevchipmunk

It is amazing that Toure can get away with this shrap.  But he, too, is a Magical Negro, so he gets to pass Go and collect a red pill AND a get-away-with-saying-anything card.  The fact is, I'm going to vote for Obama again, not because he a Magical Negro, but because Romney is just too scary.

Let's face it:  America is in deep crisis.  People are hurting, and things are getting worse.   Obama pulled the economy back from the edge and prevented it from falling into the Great Abyss of the Second Great Depression.  But he wasn't bold enough, and didn't do enough, so the economy is slowing tanking.  And America is increasingly burdened by a heavier and heavier load of debt, which is choking and strangling us. 

True, as during the Great Depression, it's not so bad if you have a job.  But over 15% of Americans are unemployed or underemployed.  And a whole generation of our young high school and college graduates face a blighted future because most can't find a meaningful job after graduation.

By rights, this election should be a shoo-in for Romney.  All he has to do is smile a lot, look Presidential, and avoid saying anything stupid to piss off any Independents.  But, inexplicably, Romney is going around saying all kinds of stupid things... and blowing it.

Obama has been an adequate President -- but only just adequate.  Four more years of Obama shouldn't -- and doesn't -- sound interesting.  But I'm going to vote for Obama, because Romney is scary.  I'm not going to vote for Obama because he is a Magical Negro.  He's not.

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

"We" swallowed it, all right.  But it wasn't "red" and it wasn't a "pill."   I think history will place Obama among the Giants.  Millard Fillmore.   Warren G. Harding.  Saint Jimmy the Carter.   I don't know what was IN what we swallowed, but I suspect it's both lethal, and from the looks of the election, addictive.  I hope we recover our collective sense in time!  But ... doesn't look to hopeful.  

Dan Pieniak
Dan Pieniak

Are they replacing "Negro" for the real "N" word they would like to use :-) And Obama is not pure "Negro".... just a mix of white ansd black!

Muhammad Khizir Farooqi
Muhammad Khizir Farooqi

Peoples voted for Obama in 2008  as he promised fora big change in his internal amp; external policies. This time they would vote for him as he did not fulfilled his promise.

1_Not_much_Hope_1
1_Not_much_Hope_1

 If we think electing or reelecting a black man - a president of the greatest nation on earth,  is an indicator of racial equality and progress - think again. Even today if more than a few houses are on sale for more than a year, people living in the neighborhood, do not hesitate to comment - "houses are not selling because too many blacks have moved into this neighborhood".  Such sentiments are pervasive in small towns and  major cities even today.

screaminjay
screaminjay

Don't worry, 100% of black people will vote for him.

BarryBarry
BarryBarry

I suppose if I call Touré (what, is he some kind of artist..just one name?) a moron, that would make me racist?

You should all vote for Romney to prove you are not a Religious Bigot.

MarksTwoCents
MarksTwoCents

Folks voted for Obama in 2008 to prove they weren't racists. In 2012 they'll vote for Romney to prove they aren't idiots.

MarksTwoCents
MarksTwoCents

This Toure' character is the lowest of the low. Toure', you have no idea how many people in middle America are pissed and fed up with being called "raaacciiist" by liars like you. Keep beating this drum (ooooooh, was that code for TRIBAL????). Only in the Propaganda media could this anti-American moron get a job. FU.

LibertyDwells
LibertyDwells

Quite entertaining, reading the Obama apologists efforts o Spin his failures, play the race card and blame Bush.  All while avoiding any issues or blatantly lying.  Leftism is, truly, a mental disease.

yahoo-OWYUUZLH5XBS2FN2QTCUAUOYPY
yahoo-OWYUUZLH5XBS2FN2QTCUAUOYPY

As bad as Bush II was, Obama is far worse. If historians are forthright at some point, they will reveal Ø for the fraud he was.

I firmly believe that Obama cannot win a fair election. Unfortunately for the country, Obama's sycophants, being myopic and apparently obtuse, have fully accepted the myth of his superiority and  will vote for him as many times as possible. God help us if they prevail.

scp2
scp2

Actually, Toure is being consistent:  after all, he still has a job despite being incompetent, so why shouldn't Obama?

scp2
scp2

Translation:  Obama hasn't delivered the way he promised he would, and if don't forgive him and reelect him in spite of it, you're racist.

Frankly, I would prefer an America that has moved beyond Toure's obnoxious and racist thinking and would treat Obama like any white politician in a similar situation (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush come to mind).

mcjenny
mcjenny

 Yes so true, because you are only not

racist if you re-hire an incompetent Black man. oh wait, but if you hire

an incompetent man just because he is black, doesn't THAT make you

racist?Read more: http://newsbusters.org/#ixzz27...

dmacleo
dmacleo

someone actually gets paid to write this.

SenatorSting
SenatorSting

The democrats cannot afford an end to "racism." Their political strategy depends on it. That's why their solutions to address "racism" really only aggravates it. The reason "racism" is on the rise as actually only the perception of real racists like Toure who can only see race in people and no individual qualities. They imagine a racist boogeyman around each corner and is the cause of all opposition to Obama and his ilk. The good thing is that people are starting to wake up and not care if the democrats call people with differing views racist.

bob_stemple
bob_stemple

I disagree, if you are talking about race at all then this county is in the same boat it was in during the 2008 race. We have made no progress what so ever.  We have blacks voting for the man just because of his color, which seems funny to me since the blacks are the ones that are hurt the most by his policies. The premise that he if elected will show that we are beyond racism is totally bogus and anyone who is honest with their selves and the rest of us would point this out. Instead you talk about how far we have come in an attempt to make those of us that vote for a person on his record and actions feel that we are racist when in fact that is not on our mind until you write an article bringing it to the forefront of the discussion. You sir are the racist since you and your collages continue to bring the race card into the discussion!

chillj
chillj

Young black writers like Ta-Nahesi Coates (The Atantic) and Toure are not helping the conversation, in part because all they see of this president is his color.  The literary character Toure cites certainly exists, although his "magical" quality is questionable; the character is more often solid and commonsensical as he helps a floundering white character (see Weeds, on Showtime).  Toure fails to notice that there are solid reasons to be unhappy with this President that are not the result of high expectation.  Yes, expectation was high and this president also was elected at a historical economic low.  But Obama, though he ushered us through crisis with some competence, failed to lead when we most needed him; he backed off principle over and over and over again until some of us said, "Once more and I am done."

The president questionably signed the NDAA, backed off on a health care public option, sold old people out in Medicare negotiations, bragged on assassinating Bin Laden (which is in execrable bad taste hitherto not seen), and failed to exhort a struggling nation by judicious use of the bully pulpit.  I can forgive much, but the people were hurting too much for the president to isolate as they suffered.  

Mr. Toure's article is far-fetched, and magazines like Time really need to be more critical when the publish them:  they harm conversations about race because they do not connect with the reality most of us live in.  There is no doubt there is a racial aspect to this election, but these authors often present a no-win situation for an electorate always called racist and frankly tired of being accused.  The sad fact is that young black writers are provoking a backlash racism, while the American public is crying, "what the hell do you want from us?" This is not productive for either the country or black politicians.

asiaman496
asiaman496

I am not so sure this election came down to Obama being so good as maybe it was Mitt being so bad...

Either way Obama deserves another 4 years and one can only hope that the Dems will carry the House and Senate so that the country can really rebound the economy...

Another dysfunctional congress will put the USA back into near recession or worse...

arvay
arvay

I think the truth is that the Bush foreign policy and domestic economic disasters were so profound and harmed and scared so many Americans that many white Americans discounted their racial feelings and voted for Obama. 

This time, he's going to have a harder time. But far from impossible. Polls seem to indicate that Americans are better informed than the Republicans want them to be -- a majority still blames Bush for the economic situation  and realize that Obama was dealt a terrible hand.

Got to do something about that damn education thing!

And Romney is providing a very helpful, sterile corporate-looking robot  (the kind of guy who unemotionally hands out pink slips,has a glass of Merlot and plays with his kids) who cannot help but portray himself as the person he is -- the One Percenter with disdain for half the population. The crass opportunist who will say whatever you want to hear. I hope the Democrats are working on efforts to undermine his Tea Party support. He deserves his share of below-the-belt rejoinders for the birther stuff, and as an offset to the racist air pollution being generated deliberately by Romney et. al.

If Obama wins he will make history again -- as the first president re-elected despite horrible unemployment numbers -- as well as the first black president elected and then re-elected. It's definitely within reach.

The Democrats need to really stir up the base -- there are many things to fear from the right-wing extremists Romney would set over us if he wins. A right-wing Supreme Court  revoking Roe vs. Wade, crippling Medicare and Medicaid, more money sent to the rich, the end of the Voter registration Act and the attempted imposition of a rich mostly-white aristocracy on the nation.

This is, actually, probably their last chance to achieve that last goal, because something very basic is changing in America. As Howard Zinn makes clear in his People's History of the United States, from the very start an elite has ruled our country by dividing people along racial lines. How many Americans know that there were countless rebellions by allied poor whites, black escaped slaves and native Americans in the early years? Scared the sh*t out of the One Percenters of the day. 

An essential part of our subsequent politics  is clarified by understanding that. 

Now, that old, reliable way to divide and conquer is doomed. 

For one thing, America is on its way to a minority majority. For another thing, younger white Americans have mostly discarded the racial mentality of their parents and grandparents.  And then, there are those women, wanting jobs, equal pay and who make up such a big slice of the electorate. 

Karl Rove meets -- arithmetic. 

Mitt and Ann Romney present America with a perfect model of a -- happily -- lost world built on delusion, ignorance and racism  -- finally dissolving. Sorry, Mitt, it will NEVER be 1950 again.  A sexless Superman clone with his simpering Barbie Doll. (Go, women !!  Did I do that right?) As inviting as a Mormon cocktail party. Your basic American flim-flam man, ready to take your money and laugh at you when he's among his fellow rich creeps.

Belisarius85
Belisarius85

Synopsis:

Voting for Obama in 2008 didn't prove you weren't racist. You were just voting for the "Magic Negro" stereotype.

You have to vote for him again to really prove your not racist.

xbj
xbj

"Equality is freedom from having to be twice as good to get ahead."

Good as in competent, as opposed to morally "good".

Brilliant as usual! Right on.

Bruce Fancher
Bruce Fancher

If the U.S. is still so racist, how is it that Obama got the highest percentage of the white vote of any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson?

José Candido
José Candido

Dont be ridiculous buffalo.Bush cause all this mess and you blame Obama for triyng fix the mess?

José Candido
José Candido

Hey Buffalo, incompetent  are Bush and the other two stoooges,Chenney and Rove ,that drove the country in the biggest recession in history,and you dare to blame Obama? He is just triyng fix the mess cause by the republicans

Papa Foote
Papa Foote

My "remembrances" about our President Obama are only a short, 4 years now! My two, most "treasured" memories are of our President Carter talking about "racial strife" and some of the "others", from the more conservative "leader side" thinking about "Waterloo" and "what our President Obama would "GET"!

Well, "our racial strife" is still there - making "slow, but forward progress" into the "Future"!

While, "Waterloo" seems to be a problem for "backward thinking conservatives" that still are focusing themselves from where we were - instead of "working into our Future"!

Clarence Swinney
Clarence Swinney

YES WE CAN

BALANCE THAT BUDGET

1945 to 1980 we taxed wealth and estates to pay off WWII debt.

Now, we need the same to Pay off the “Republican” debt.

We have an income of 14,000B.

2013 budget calls for 2900B in revenue and 900B in deficit.

A shame that a nation with 14,000B income borrows 900B on a 3800B Budget.

We rank #4 on Inequality in OECD nations and above only Chile and Mexico as Least taxed.

In Federal-State and Local taxes we tax 27% of our GDP..

Since 1980, our tax rates have been cut to favor the wealthy.

Top 50% take 86% of individual income and pay a 12.5% Tax Rate

70,000,000 take 14% and all pay the full payroll tax.

The top 400 are billionaires. Some pay no payroll tax.

Most pay less than 1%.

We MUST go back to taxing Estates and Wealth at higher rates.

One family has more wealth than 90% of families.

We can balance our budget and pay off our debt which will give the middle class a larger share of our wealth and an improved standard of living. clarence swinney

scorpion_48
scorpion_48

SCOTUS and brother Jeb cheated to get Dubya in office--you voted for him a 2nd time despite his poor job creation record, his lack of diplomatic skills, his lies about mushroom clouds and yellow cake. It didn’t bother you that the Bush WH committed a treasonous act by outing a CIA agent. Bush  gave us 9/11. He didn’t keep us safe.

 Bush printed money--$12 trillion plus for two wars, killed hundreds of thousands on both sides.  He destroyed people's incomes amp; life savings( toxic derivatives and $700 billion in Wealthcare for Wall Street and billions for Halliburton).  

Now the right-wing or hawks want a war with Iran so makers of bombs, bullets and guns can raid the government coffers again. 

Toure is a quisling. Race is his calling card to the “bigs.” Race has been at the heart of the GOP-tin-foil-hat angst from day one and the world knows it. Now, the world knows that Willard is another empty suit.