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. David

    May be true! His mother-in-law parctices santeria (voodoo) for those of you not in the know. And she had a ceremony done for her in the White House (which BO was fusrious about) as she wrorries about her health. She turned to santeria over desperation over her husbands failing health in the late 80's.

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

    I believe the witch doctor image is racist, like the joker image etc. But I am more concerned with the Hitler image/comparison, calling him a Marxist, and complaints about socialism. The anger directed at this President in only nine months in office is unprecedented. That is why I believe Carter's comments are correct. People are angry about a lot of things. The deficit, the role and size of government, the bank Bailouts (under Bush), the auto bailouts, and of course healthcare. But the vitriol and outlandish comparisons to Hitler show something a lot deeper than anger. More like hatred to me. How else can this kind of hatred be fomented except with deep seated racism at its core?

    September 17, 2009 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  3. Alexander

    Tea Party members are racist, plain and simple. How many blacks, latinos, or asians do you see represented in those crowds?? None! And these bigots dare say that they represent America?! Shame!!

    September 17, 2009 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
  4. jbean

    BOOO HOOOO... flash the race card...

    September 17, 2009 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
  5. Island girl

    Does anyone remember when the N.Y. Post proudly strutted a cartoon portraying the President as a chimpanzee shot and killed by the cops? This was supposed to be sattire based on the story of the woman who was co-habiting with a chimp which "went ape" and almost killed a visitor to the house. Then there was a baker in NY who had black Obama cookies on sale to boost business he says; and there are countless unreported distasteful incidents

    If things like these happened once or twice you could give the benefit of the doubt to someone else but it is pretty obvious that the the haters are out in full force and nothing that the President can do to change their hearts. They cannot sleep at night because this man (who does not fit the profile of who they envision for the White House) actually lives there with his family. They are still wondering how such a thing could happen. Don't worry folks, there are more changes to come down the road, so get used to it!

    September 17, 2009 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  6. John from Canada

    RASICT plain and simple same as the person who did it poster and held it simple minded

    September 17, 2009 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  7. Change_Has_Begun

    It is RACIST plain and simple...these people have been raised to believe that white race is better than any other race even though Black race was the first race to walk the earth (I am not black)...now that we have a wonderful black president these people are totally confused and flabbergasted...they do not know how to react...what they were taught all their life has been proven wrong...so to counter that they have to prove president Obama wrong no matter what...they just can't get over the fact that a black man is running America...

    September 17, 2009 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  8. aware

    Obama is biracial, and he was raised by a white grandmother. So cut the silly stuff.

    Obama's problem is that people now see the real deal! Obama is just not authentic – his words don't match his actions, and his power-lusting ego reigns! :(

    September 17, 2009 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  9. DonnaLee

    Yes it is all about his color. Oh ... by the way ... did you hear that Obama is the anti-christ, and if you take any money from the current government that all your children will be born black, and he was really born on Mars a day after Hillary, and we have photos of him in Hitler's bunker, and he boils small white children for dinner, and he has an odd colored dandruff, and he is a skinny bean pole who couldn't whip his way out of a paper bag, and ... and ... and ... and he thinks that all white folks are all pathetic dung beatles in search of a giant cosmic moose flop. Eat it up righties!

    September 17, 2009 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  10. JR

    I believe you meant to say feather head dress, as a father head dress would likely be a mesh baseball hat;)

    September 17, 2009 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  11. Lynda/Minnesota

    What is most unbelievable is that CNN uses it's own headline statement as a question worthy of debate . . .

    September 17, 2009 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  12. Phat Elvis

    RACIST. in what context is the witch doctor imagery applicable to legitimate criticisms of Obama? "Tea Party" whackos want to say racist things while rationalizing what they say is not racist. it may be sincere, but only discloses the extent of ignorance in those people.
    The group would help themselves alot by denouncing racist signs and insist on a more civil tone intheir opposition, but really thats not going to happen. so i guess the price they pay is to be labeled racists.

    September 17, 2009 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  13. Reformed Republican

    Of course it racist.
    If anybody knows how to play the "race card" to gin up fear and hate among whites living below the Mason-Dixon line it's the rethugliklans that's for sure.

    September 17, 2009 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  14. Pam

    Racist. Period.

    September 17, 2009 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  15. jm for sc

    Why weren't this group of people protesting the wars in which their king created.

    September 17, 2009 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  16. Republicans are the American Taliban

    Why don't they all just wear the traditional Taliban ceremonial white robe and hood to their lynch parties??

    September 17, 2009 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  17. Debbie

    The tea baggers, witch doctor images, Hitler images, are all used and encouraged by the GOP. These activities are no different than people who encourage riots.

    It is based on three things: 1) the GOP lost, 2) Propaganda Tactics 3) Obama is black.

    The tactics being used are to incite anger pure and simple. The tactics used are directed at people who are racist, opposed to Democrates, uninformed or misinformed people on taxes and/or health care.

    It began with Palin, it happened several times with McCain until he was forced to stop it (all while tv cameras were running) and it has continued till today and I suspect it will continue until the truth comes out.

    I do not think the majority of Americans feel this way. The evidence in that will be in 2010.

    September 17, 2009 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  18. John from Canada

    RACIST plain and simple same as the person who did it poster and held it simple minded

    September 17, 2009 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  19. Voter

    Hey, Obama – here's your chance to make fun of Pelosi for crying over the state of politics in America. Oh my goodness, she's human – just like Hillary Clinton.

    You do like to make fun of people, don't you?

    September 17, 2009 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  20. really ?

    What FOOL would think that this sort of thing was NOT racist or that it was justified. Apparently, tea party members do which, speaks VOLUMES about who belongs to this group. To say that this depiction of the President is justified because of their anger is like saying it is justified to call a coworker the 'N-word' because he or she made someone angry. Again, this speaks volumes about how racism is still alive and well in this country.

    September 17, 2009 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  21. Bobby

    You people are completely lost. Do you actually believe with the message your trying to sell? I hope not. Why are you trying to demonize the conservative movement as racist. This is not true. After looking at all the signs at the protest, I did not see a "witch doctor" image. I saw Americans (black and white) wearing patriotic shirts, waving American Flags, protesting the socialist agenda of the liberal democratic party. So am I a racist when I disagree with Speaker Pelosi? What about Barney Frank? I am not a racist. This is why your ratings are dropping.

    September 17, 2009 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  22. G

    Any politician who tries to screw up our medical system would be portrayed as a witch doctor. I'm tired of these unfair accusations. Presidents get criticized and Presidents with bad policies get criticized even more. Stop trying to bully and intimidate citizens. We have a right to be concerned, a right to speak out and even a right to speak out loudly (especially when Obama, Pelosi and Reid refuse to listen to the people). Grow-up! Especially Pelosi and Reid who were so rude and mean spirited to President Bush....It takes a lot of hypocrasy to complain about the current political environment. DO YOUR JOBS, LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE AND STOP THESE INTIMIDATION TACTICS!!!

    September 17, 2009 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  23. Bonnie

    At least they are finally coming out the closet, and admitting they are racist, and can't stand the thought of an African American President, well guess what, deal with it. This is not "your country" this is Americans country, and we are all Americans. It is one thing to attack ones policies, it is quite another to attack ones ethnicity, and character. It really shows how you were raised, and how you are raising your children. Soo pathetically sad. At least I can hold my head high, in knowing I was raised, and raised my children to know everyone is equal, noone is better than the other.

    September 17, 2009 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  24. Let The Race Talks Start

    Are you kidding? Sure it's rasist! Why our we so afraid to talk about it? I think sweeping under the rug is hurting our country!

    September 17, 2009 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  25. T. van Tol

    Insulting Barack Obama by so cold Americans. It's disgusting.
    Today he become my hero by cancelling the missileproject in
    Poland. Fear is over, time for peace and change for this planet.
    His next step should be peace in the M. East, savety for Israel and
    the Palestines.
    Bring it on Barack, the world is supporting you more each day.

    Now, CNN please post this, you blocked my comments for weeks now. Is this freedom of speech in America?

    Ted van Tol, The Netherlands

    September 17, 2009 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
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