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. Rani McBride

    Yes, well there is plenty of anger on the other side also!!!!!!!!!! I am so sick of these people spreading lies and making up fabrications of what the Liberals and Obama are trying to do to "our country" Give me a break! There are plenty of people who disagree with the right wing fanatics. The difference however....is just what President Obama says. TV loves a rucus. The media should start showing the outrage against the Republican's and how they are trying to derail anything Obama trys to do! The difference I guess is, they are not holding up Racist or ignorant signs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    September 17, 2009 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  2. Joe Cotton

    Again I must say..."America's Chickens Have Come Home To....ROOST!!!!

    September 17, 2009 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  3. lucy from pa

    And they think racism is okay becuase they don't agree with his policies? WHAT????

    Apparently these have overlooked that he was elected by a majority. That is what democracy means. Remember how we are killing people in other countries, and our own troops are dying, to try to force this form of government on them?

    Joe Wilson took over from Jessie Helms, so what do we expect?

    September 17, 2009 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  4. NVa Native

    Clearly a racist poster ...nothing new for the gop of scared haters. No excuse for them. The rest of us (and the world) can move on and let them wallow in their puke.

    September 17, 2009 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  5. rich

    republicans should be recognized as the racist party. All I here from their party is hate and racism. No new ideas only hate. One thing I find interesting is how republicans always talk about how bad the government is at doing anything, but don't they realize they work for the government. So based on their suggestions I will never vote for a republican because they are bad at doing everything.

    September 17, 2009 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  6. Buster

    Oliar isn't a witch doctor, but he sure lies about healthcare EVERY time he speaks about it.

    September 17, 2009 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  7. ray

    any , any, any american with an honest mind who dont think this president is been trashed by the right and the fox news and friends and other media outlet should put a gun to there ..head and die sooner than later.

    September 17, 2009 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
  8. dk

    There is obvious racism exhibited in these demonstrations and town hall meeting, despite the efforts by some to “cloak the racism”

    September 17, 2009 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
  9. Debby

    I love how none of of these so called experts talk of Obama's white half. I mean look at Sat. night live portraying Hillary with cream all over her face with the 3am wake up call. Characatures go along with the territory. Bush was famous for having them plastered all over the newspapers and he never whined about it. IMO people who constantly talk about racism in our country are racist themselves. When you have the highest office in the US its how you conduct yourself, and do whats right for America and the people. I truly hope Obama was elected for that an not because he is the first biracial man to take the high office in the US.

    September 17, 2009 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  10. Carl

    Same thing was done to Bush. It's that way with everything now days. If it happens to a white man it's not a racial issue. Why is this?

    September 17, 2009 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  11. CAL

    where were these idiots when W and his gang of crooks were spending and stealing there money? This is all about race i don't give a darn what nobody say, these stupid tea robots sat at home and let george walk all over them, that was ok, he is white.

    September 17, 2009 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  12. Traj

    These White people are really showing me that black people are not the radical ones. Blacks have proven to be the more subdued, thoughtful people in these last couple of years. It has become shameful. Very shameful. Not great to be a southern white christian right now...

    September 17, 2009 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  13. worriedmom

    CNN, I think you and other LIberal media are just stoking the fire! What a short memory that you have. To be fair, why dont you display some of the posters that showed Bush. Talk about hateful.
    I think the media would love nothing more than to start a racial war so that the networks can continue their ratings.
    Before anyone throws any stones, just remember what people did to Bush and even the Clintons and the hate signs, yes even the JOKER.
    Get over the hate people and get down to issues.
    There are always going to be people who are racist, black, white, asian, hispanic, etc but for the majority of good Americans, a lot of people are beyond that!!!

    September 17, 2009 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  14. bob

    kinda reflects a very sick part of our society..it's very sad . I feel sorry for these people, very sorry indeed

    September 17, 2009 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  15. Scott F

    if you have to ask, then you have your answer...

    September 17, 2009 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  16. Hugo

    I think it a fitting placard given the issues of the debate. What is racially discriminatory of Obama as a witch doctor? Was depicting GW Bush as a cowboy racist? Was comparing him to a chimpanzee racist? Double standard days are over, we are now an enlightened society, don't you watch MTV?

    I have always thought that the native attire of different cultures to be quite beautiful, especially the New Guinea tribesmen. What is discriminatory in depicting our President as a witch doctor, in most cultures the shaman would be a wise and highly regarded figure with mystical power and knowledge. Lighten up black folk, we are all in this one together, (no pun intended).

    September 17, 2009 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  17. cspurgeon

    Yes its racist but not worth discussion and news. I am a Republican turned Independent who will never vote Republican again. I am totally ashamed of their tin man march to the party song and their no to everything. They will be the party of wackos . I just hope some good Independent candidates come thru so I have choices. I think the far left is just as wacko and not interested in anymore ignorant hate from anyone.

    September 17, 2009 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  18. bella

    What a great headline, CNN!! So let me get this straight - I guess you are stoking the fires of racism yourself with this headline and story!! That's one of the main problems in this 21st Century - the MEDIA!!

    September 17, 2009 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  19. katiec

    CNN, STOP IT!!
    Your constant support, headlining, sensationalizing of these radicals is just adding fuel to the fire.
    YOU ARE BECOMING AS BAD AS FOX.
    Must say, Fox has more integrity in the respect that we all know where
    they are coming from, but you hide behind "news your can trust".
    You should be embarressed and ashamed of yourself the way you
    have disregarded, thrown away all integrity and honor!!

    September 17, 2009 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  20. annie

    So, it is okay to be racist if you are angry? Bring out the lynch mobs–we were just angry?

    September 17, 2009 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  21. Angie in PA

    Very Racisit the Fringe being Promoted by the Garbage Glen Beck on Fixed News The slimebag that and I quote him HATES 911 VICTIMS FAMILIES All they do is whine and complain he says well that garbage is very proud of the Obama Hate Fest! YES IT IS ALL ABOUT RACE!

    September 17, 2009 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  22. Who put the twit in twitter? Sarah!

    I live outside of Detroit, I'm in auto manufacturing and people are coming back to work. The stock market is on an upward trend and homes are starting to sell again in my area. We still have a long way to go but I am quite comfortable with where Obama is leading the country even if the so called tea-baggers aren't.

    September 17, 2009 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  23. Julia - Native American from Idaho

    These signs are purely racist, you would have to be totally blind not to see it. I am ashamed to live in a country that tolerates such racist activity and is even willing to try and defend it on several networks, We know FOX fascist news defends it, but CNN, well, you guys just seem to look the other way. Wow, you sure have an opinion about everything else. I am sick of watching that John Roberts guy trying to defend these right wing nut cases. Okay, I forgot, it's okay to be a little bit racist, right CNN. Totally disgusting and not acceptable

    September 17, 2009 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  24. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA

    The picture that's being referred to looks racially motivated in my viewpoint.

    September 17, 2009 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  25. Idiot_Pelosi

    Oh yeah, RACISM is why I don't like his socialist policies.

    What a joke? People are simutaneously criticizing the policies of Pelosi, Frank Reid, Schummer, and they are all white.

    It has nothing to with RACE.

    Nice try DUMOcrats.

    Your policies stink.

    September 17, 2009 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
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