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. Denver Dem

    Let this be said, Conservative Repugs are Racists, Jimmy Carter is spot on accurate in his comments. I am so sick and tired of the Political terrorists, and the religious racists AKA Talk Repugs, from spouting there crap. I am sick and tired of these idiots saying that facts are a matter of opinion. No stupid 2 +2 =4 and there is no matter of opinion about it. If you are a republican take a deep look into yourself and say "Do I believe like Rush or Beck?" B/C if you do you are a hateful racist that needs to be disposed of.

    September 17, 2009 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  2. WhoCares?

    Of course it is racist. How can anyone even think it is not?

    September 17, 2009 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  3. Shaking Our Heads in Canada

    Totally racist.
    The "Tea Party" movement has revealed the ugly racist underbelly of the USA to the world. Shameful.

    September 17, 2009 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  4. Ed, Santa Fe, NM

    It's obviously racism.

    September 17, 2009 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  5. Mississippi Miss

    No one should paint President Obama any other way than what he is.

    We should use a broad brush, get a broad view, and then discuss our
    differences reasonably to preserve and celebrate the freedom we have
    in this great country to dissent.

    If I were an editorial cartoonist, I would be tempted to draw President Obama tramping down the grapes of wrath. Many of us are the grapes.

    September 17, 2009 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  6. Lisa P

    Weasel words from the organizers of the Know Nothing Tea Bag Party. Either the signs are racist or they're not. Either you allow people who carry them to attend your rallies or you don't. If you do, you are just as racist as they are, end of story, no ifs ands or buts about it. People who encourage racists in order to make political hay or grab media attention to their sorry cause are just as despicable as the the racists themselves, maybe more so.

    Want to talk policy? Fine. Please start any time you're ready - minus the lies, personal attacks and the fear mongering this time, please.

    September 17, 2009 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  7. therealmarie

    Racist.

    September 17, 2009 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  8. NadineCA

    Completely racist, why a witch doctor? Where does that come from? What image comes to mind when you think of a witch doctor? Did they use witch doctor images against Bill or Hillary when they tried to reform healthcare? Why not, or yeah, their white. It bad enough to be a racist but to be a cowardly racist and not own up to what you are doing is lame. At least be man enough to say it to a person face instead of masking it behind some lame excuse of satire or politics against government. What does a african zoo have to do with healthcare. what does the supposed joker have to do with healthcare. what does images of watermelon on the white house lawn have to do with healthcare. need I go on.

    September 17, 2009 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  9. texmexgal

    I've lived in this country for almost 70 years and can truly say that I have NEVER KNOWN anyone who was a racist. This is a term that is now thrown around far too casually. Like the F word, it is starting to
    become the word de jour. Personally, I am sick and tired of it.

    September 17, 2009 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  10. Kimberly from Houston, Texas

    It's racist. Now let's move on to REAL issues...PLEASE!

    September 17, 2009 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  11. crystal mitchell

    This is clearly racist, the organizers of these events are clear that the people that show up are crazy and fear that the change that is happening is something that they do not want. I am sick and tired of all this mess. It shows that as great country as we are, we and still behind. President Barack Obama is our president, whether some of you like it or not , this is where we are. and we better step ahead or we all lose. This is not a winning battle on no particular side. This country is made up of different races, people of all colors and to say or believe that one race is suppose to dominate is crazy.We must start making our noise people that stand for righteousness.

    September 17, 2009 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  12. Steph

    Why else would Wilson have his outburst? He, himself, voted in 2003 to provide federal funding for health care for illegal immigrants. Soooo, if it wasn't about the issue of federal money going to pay for illegal immigrants, what was it about????

    September 17, 2009 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  13. Kevin in Ohio

    The race card continues to be played....this time by the CNN staff.

    September 17, 2009 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  14. annie s

    I certainly don't believe that everyone who disagrees with the President's policies is a racist, but I do believe that the fanatical personal attacks against him clearly have a basis in racism. Because of an underlying fear that some whites have of African Americans, the Republicans have managed to turn policy dissent into some of the most frightening racist hatred I've ever seen.

    September 17, 2009 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  15. Alan

    What do you expect? The tea party people are, for the most part, poorly-educated non-thinkers who want others to think for them - so they act when told to act the way they've been told to act.

    And they've been told by the GOP they follow - surprise surprise - to be "afraid. Be very afraid."

    They have no brain capacity for intelligent discussion. They have no ability to see the racism in what they do. That makes them innocent of overt racism, but the acts still racist.

    Personally - I look at the witch doctor images and think to myself - yes. Obama IS working magic. What he's done so far with what he was handed has been nothing short of a miracle so - maybe the signs are misguided in their depiction, but right in every other way.

    September 17, 2009 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  16. Freedom

    I'm in a interacial marraige. My wife who is AFRO AMERICAN has attended several tea parties with me. We protest things like CAP AND TRADE. Which we think will cause more jobs to go oversea's, and our DEM congressmen also agrees with us. So their is a good cause to protest goverment. It's funny we have been married for 11 years ,and we never had a problem with any of these tea party people. I don't think all these tea party people we protest with are racist. P.S. My wife just wanted to say we just like socialist.

    September 17, 2009 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  17. gt

    this is pitiful.... get a life

    September 17, 2009 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  18. Margaret

    Is this what happens to an administration and media when they no longer have anything of substance to offer the nation?

    Well it won't work.

    September 17, 2009 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  19. ladonna

    Seriously I think about all the things that have been shown on Saturday Night Live about almost all other presidents over the last several decades and it's called "satire" – can someone please tell me what the difference is? Really, tell me please.

    September 17, 2009 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  20. Teresa

    I think the picture speaks for itself. Racism is racism. I am so tired of folk saying that everytime someone says something negative about the PRESIDENT OF THE U.S. that black people says it's racism. Not all the time, but when it is, then It is what it is. It's RACIST. This President is so disrespected. He was duly elected by the people and should be respected for that reason alone. How can we tout Democracy to other nations, when we don't practice what we preach? Tolerance, diversity? Really? Doesn't look or sound like America to me. I guess that's only if we have a "White" leader? This really is so disheartening for people to watch this garbage every day, day in and out. But then that's the purpose of the constant barrage isn't it? Guess what? It always backfires right wing hardliners. Get a clue and buy a vowel. The truly classy folk will speak at the ballot box in 2010 and 2012. Your sheet has been pulled off and you have been unmasked. Black, White and indifferent. And by the way, Michael Steele is a joke.

    September 17, 2009 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  21. Independent Again

    CNN,
    -where was this outrage when protestors were doing the exact same thing to Bush???
    -where was the outrage when Stark & others called Bush a liar in Congress?
    -where was the outrage when Bush was booed by Dems in Congress?
    Oh! & keep thinking that CNN is an objective news organization & ur ratings are off the charts right?

    Never mind. Continue with the hypocrisy!
    LOL!

    P.S.Not so nice when it done to ur Messiah right? Please continue to play the race card as instructed by the Obama Admin. That is the last ditch effort to save the Messiah's healthcare bill, & approval ratings. This post-racial world we are living in now, seems so much better now.

    September 17, 2009 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  22. Someone with common sense, unlike 99.9% of conservatives

    Of course it's racist. Are we going to start asking if water is wet too?

    September 17, 2009 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  23. M.M. Miller

    I'm starting to think black people and white people serve two different gods with the same name.
    Black people have a god who will pay their bills and white people have a god who justifies them ruling the world.

    September 17, 2009 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  24. Lila

    African Witch Doctor
    African Lion/African Liar
    Muslim
    Alien
    Foreigner
    Undocumented Worker

    Which part of these protest signs is supposed to tell me, "I don't agree with your policy" ?

    September 17, 2009 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  25. Jeeze

    Yes, of course it's racist. These Tea Party people would never use the same analogy if Obama were white (and they seem to keep forgetting that he is just as white as he is black). The level of vitriol and hatred being yelled, posted, drawn and spewn is rooted in racism, not in policy disagreements. Honestly I'm all in favor of the First Amendment but these ignorant noisemakers really ought to practice a little bit of self-constraint and remember their manners. If they have any.

    September 17, 2009 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
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