September 17th, 2009
02:37 PM ET
5 years ago

Obama as witch doctor: Racist or satirical?

Obama as witch doctor: Racist or satirical?.
Obama as witch doctor: Racist or satirical?.

(CNN) – Posters portraying President Obama as a witch doctor may be racist, organizers of Tea Party protests say, but they reflect anger about where he is leading the country.

The posters, showing Obama wearing a father headdress and a bone through his nose, have recently popped up in e-mails, on Web sites and at Tea Party protests.

The image has stoked debate and cast attention on the rallies, which have drawn people Tea Party organizers describe as on the fringe and not
representative of the overall movement. Their general viewpoint, leaders say, is that there's been too much federal government intervention, particularly concerning health care and taxes.

The witch doctor imagery is blatantly racist, critics contend.


Others remind that presidents get made fun off all the time, and the election of a black president has only made racially charged political satire more sensitive.

While not denying the crudeness of the image, Tea Party organizers stressed that those who carry the signs are a few "bad apples."

"That [witch doctor] image is not representative at all of what this movement is about," said Joe Wierzbicki, a coordinator of the Tea Party
Express, a three-week series of protests across the country.

The anger the image portrays, however, "says to me that a lot of people in this country are angry about the direction that the administration and Congress are taking us," he said.

"And you're going to see a wide expanse of those people," he continued.

"Some are going to be more extreme. Most of them are going to be in the mainstream of American politics, as evidenced by Obama's falling poll numbers."

An incendiary image such as witch doctor detracts from any hope for a cohesive message at the rallies, where many appear not to be associated directly with either the Republican or Democratic parties, said W. Joseph Campbell, a media professor at American University.

And previous infringements of good taste don't make it acceptable to Photoshop the president into a witch doctor.

"It's true that presidents before have had to endure some rough stuff, and there's nothing wrong with satire," Campbell said. "President Bush was morphed into Hitler. That was not excusable either. Just because it's happened in the past doesn't mean there isn't a line and it can't be crossed."

As a politics and African-American studies professor at Princeton University, Melissa Harris-Lacewell typically advocates discussion about the
racist overtones in images or language bandied in public discourse.

"But I'm concerned in the age of Obama, too many of our public conversations about policy have been limited to a kind of investigative effort
to determine whether opposition to him is based on race or substantive disagreement," she told CNN. "The problem is, it can be both."

Harris-Lacewell points out that Obama made his African father a part of his campaign narrative. Now his critics are trying to mock that heritage.

"This witch doctor image is racist in a very specific way because of his proximity to Africa," she said. "You can imagine there would have easily been a time when [Jewish New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg would have been portrayed in anti-Semitic ways. You can go back to political cartoons when Irish

Democrats were mocked, Italians were lampooned."

Spelman College history professor William Jelani Cobb, who has written extensively about race and politics, points out the original Boston Tea Party was driven by colonists who frequently declared that they had been "enslaved" by the king of England. The men who led that revolt dressed up as Native Americans when they dumped the tea into Boston Harbor in 1773.

Hard to pin down and a seeming catch-all for general anger at the government, the modern Tea Party movement is grounded the belief that the
federal government should stay out of state business. But "states' rights is also an argument with a history tied to racial segregation during the civil rights' era," Harris-Lacewell said. And so it comes full circle.

Cobb said Obama's election has also rekindled the historic rancor some whites feel against successful blacks.

"There is lots of connective tissue here," said Cobb. "The Atlanta race riot of 1906 was partly about this. The upsurge of riots at the beginning of the 20th century was driven in part by the fact that blacks were perceived to be moving up in society - at the expense of whites.

The Atlanta race riot, which left 25 black people and two white people dead, was sparked by a series of false news reports about black people
committing crimes, inciteful rhetoric from white politicians and an overall fear by whites that blacks were starting to make progress socially and politically in the south.

"Now we have a black president, which means, on its most basic level, that a black man has more power than any single white citizen in this country," Cobb said. "Whether people want to admit it or not, I suspect the Tea Party crowd believes that the currency of whiteness has been devalued."

There's another wrinkle to the witch doctor controversy. Obama was mocked by some critics as the "magical negro" during the campaign because he was perceived to be a solve-all to nation's problems.

"This is an echo of the theme during the campaign when his opponents would ask 'Who is Barack Obama?" Cobb said.

"At that point, it was part of a somewhat cynical attempt to depict him as vaguely foreign and unknown," Cobb said. "But now that he has control over actual policies, those views appear to have hardened, metastasized into something more vitriolic.

"Caricature is part of politics, but racist stereotyping isn't."


Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (227 Responses)
  1. Nagudcm Sugna

    I thought we have already figured this out. "Anything negative about Obama is racist."

    September 17, 2009 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  2. Offend Equally

    Is this stuff a joke? I mean, there is real racism out there. This satirical stuff. Quit making people scared to offend people equally!
    I remember insane Bush signs, and Clinton stuff even that was over the top too. It's not about race, it's about a democracy, and people making their opinions known.

    September 17, 2009 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  3. Leonard

    If this question has to be ask then we really need to have a discussion on race issues. WOW

    September 17, 2009 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  4. Peter

    Time to start portraying the Tea Party twits as knuckle-dragging chimpanzees. Of course, you'd to add a disclaimer apologizing to real chimpanzees.

    September 17, 2009 02:41 pm at 2:41 pm |
  5. debra

    Where was all this outrage from African-Americans when Dr. Condi Rice was drawn in a bandana like Aunt Jemima?

    African Americans are even now making racist comments against Mr. Steele.....

    This is not about race...it is about polotics

    September 17, 2009 02:42 pm at 2:42 pm |
  6. FL for Change

    RACIST! As Forrest Gump said, "Stupid is as stupid does!" Anyone who does not think of this "ad" as racist is stupid. Ever seen a white witchdoctor? Ever see any black faces in the tea parties?

    September 17, 2009 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  7. Roger in CA

    So, basically, it is racist, but it is ok because these people are really, really angry.....

    Hmmmm.....

    Get off my planet, cretins!

    September 17, 2009 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  8. Dan

    I agree, it has brought people out, the ones that were on the fringe of being raciest and a bigot.

    September 17, 2009 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  9. R in Maine

    It is racist. Good cover for the lies that follow, but still racist. Anyone who claims that it is not racist should examine themselves at great length.

    September 17, 2009 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  10. Fancysmiley from Conyers

    Yes it is racist, but because we talk about it so often, do people really believe this will stop? These folks hold their racist views and there's nothing we can do about but wait til they all drop dead. At least then, we won't have to worry about them anymore.

    September 17, 2009 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  11. David from WI

    Just plain STUPID and why don't you ask those that held the sigh and not paint a broad bush and assume most are so DUMB to use that sort of sigh.

    Oh not we in the media have to REMIND everyone some morons had those sighs. Couldn't be they WERE NOT what most think at those protests believed NOOO that is just RESPONSIBLE JOURNALISM TO FIND THAT OUT.

    No wonder you ratings are tanking.

    September 17, 2009 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  12. Randolph Carter, a real American

    Actually, Obama is a lot like a witch doctor. the witch doctor is the smartest, most competent man in the village, he heals the sick and commands everyone's respect. So, yeah, the teabaggers are just showing how much they support and respect our president. Have a nice day!

    September 17, 2009 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  13. Sam Sixpack

    Obama, with his soothing words, offers you a guilt-free path to pulling the plug on your own Grandma.

    Witch doctor is, perhaps, putting it too nicely.

    September 17, 2009 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  14. Lazlo

    What is a "father headdress"???

    You really need a proofreader. The amount of typos on this site is alomost as appalling as your selection of "top stories" that includes more fluff than substance.

    September 17, 2009 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  15. WDRussell

    Look at the teabaggers signs.
    Look at who are holding them.

    This is not a cross section of America.

    September 17, 2009 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  16. Robert W

    You can't ask a racist if they are racist. They will justify their behavior and attitudes as a correct reaction to groups of people who are just plain bad. A witch doctor for a president who has been called a Kenyan musim? Heck no! No racism here. Racism is always ignorant, self-rightout, loud, and disrespectful.

    September 17, 2009 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  17. Connie, Indiana

    govenment intervention my butt. They racist and afraid of a "black man". I am so tired of people making excuses for rotten behavior. THese so called tea parties are not about politics, but to show the world how low this country has become thanks to likes of Beck, Hannity and their ilk.. The MSM need to start calling these people for who and what they are liars, hate mongers, race baiting...Where in the devil have the real journalists of the country gone. What in God's name of you afraid of, surely not the likes of Glen Beck..some MSM hosts are trading their souls for viewer points. Try being true to yourself and not the idiots of this world.

    September 17, 2009 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  18. Phil from IN

    I'm sorry – I thought Palin was the one who hung out with witch doctors in her spare time. Wait – that's because she DID!

    September 17, 2009 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  19. redwhiteandbluepinko

    At first I thought Jimmy Carter to be wrong when he stated that the vehement oppostion to O'Bama's every move was racist in origin. But in thinking of the good ole boy from So Carolina who broke any sense of civility by calling him a liar on the flooe of Congress, and after puzzling at the lies , haterd and irrationality directed his way, I now agree with Carter. This is bigotry, 2009 style.

    September 17, 2009 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  20. Juge

    It sure is BLATANTLY racist! Shame and abomination on those VERY ignorant bigoted people who have perpetrated this ignominy on this country.

    September 17, 2009 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  21. Steve in OH

    "wearing a father headdress and a bone through his nose". You mean like an Indian? How is that racist?

    September 17, 2009 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  22. RNC = DNC = politics as usual

    Obama supporters felt very comfortable using sexism and ageism to taunt and make fun of McCain and Clinton during the campaign.

    I guess what goes around, comes around.

    Some critics of Obama are clearly racist but that should not create a demonizing atmosphere of anyone that criticizes Obama.

    "To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."

    Theodore Roosevelt

    September 17, 2009 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  23. sine

    I honestly thought it was a Native American sign, but in any event their is way too much hateful rhetoric and images being thrown around. It's dangerous and irresponsible and our elected politicians, republicans and democrats have a responsibility to call it like it is and condemn it. I'm glad Obama got elected – I preceived the 'post-racial president' picture everyone painted of him as an opportunity to show the disdain some Americans have for those that don't look like them. It shows those americans who say that racism no longer exists or those bloggers, and radio pundit that continually call blacks or native americans or hispanics too sensitive, that the problem does exist, and until we all confront it as a nation and condemn those who are filled with hate we will never move towards a more perfect union. God bless our President – he was put on this earth for a reason.

    September 17, 2009 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  24. obama the liar

    barry has SURROUNDED hisself with racist..end of story.

    September 17, 2009 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  25. chelle

    Beyond all the what is satire? is the bold statement of so many of "freedom of speech". The writers of your constitution would have slapped someone in irons in the town square over some comments now labelled freedom of speech. The freedom of speech they were worried about was the freedom to disagree with your government without the owner of a paper being slapped in jail. At that time derogatory remarks about someone would have resulted in a duel.... Know your history as well as the words so you can put your constitutional rights in context.

    September 17, 2009 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
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