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. A.B.

    This was clearly a racist epithet against Obama which should not stand!! Although most people in the conservative movement are not bigots or racists, there are some elements in the movement that clearly are. The Republican Party leaders have been ringing their hands over their failure to attract and retain minorities in their party without wondering the reasons. Well, the Republican leadership should look to the current tea parties and some of the nutty and racist elements as some of the main reasons!! Prehaps they might get a clue!!

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

    It seems absurd to me to argue that racist signs and comments are the product of anger over policy. That doesn't tell the whole story as the reverse is also true. We have all seen clearly that much of the anger over policy (not all) is the product of racism. Why is it so outrageous to call it for what it is?

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

    What level of reality is a person in that saz that these actions are not racial ? Does this action and the Repubs voting against the motion on Joe Wilson mean that we are now in an era when everything is fair game... And there is no respect for any office ? What nest fruit being thown by Repubs at the state of the union address and the Repubs saying they were not going to muzzled in sharing thier love for fruit ? Repubs ... get ove3r it...

    Many Demo's after 2000 election for about 6 months refused to accept Bush as the elected prez... Your party began the attacks the day after his election !

    If you want to tear this country apart keep following the mindless
    garbage that Rush , Bech and that lot feed you ...

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

    Obama is trying to fix Bush's mess (the worst financial crises since the great depression). These people should have been protesting all of Bush's spending!!!

    September 17, 2009 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  5. Shana

    Obama is trying to fix Bush's mess (the worst financial crisis since the great depression). These people should have been protesting all of Bush's spending!!!

    September 17, 2009 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  6. Old News

    It amazes me that some people pretend that racism aganist Obama just started with the Tea Parties and Birthers, racism has been prominent since Obama first started running for office. I research this for myself, As Jimmy Carter said, "it has bubbled up to the surface".

    September 17, 2009 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  7. Carol

    Let's not make this issue of disagreement with the President into a racial issue, because that will only waste time and energy that could be better spent coming up with solutions to real problems America is facing. Even President Obama has said he doesn't feel the opposition is because of racial issues. Give it a break, media, and get back to reporting on the real issues.

    September 17, 2009 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  8. I give up

    If I say yes, can I continue to oppose his policies?

    September 17, 2009 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  9. Tabeth

    Tea Protesters:

    Where were they when the war in Iraq started?
    Where were they when the economy started disintegrating?
    Where were they when WMD were not found in Iraq?

    But for someone trying to bring the countery into its rightful stand
    they are on the road.. what for???

    By saying that Obama is the same as Hitlert hey are just showing to the american people what is inside of them.

    Was Kenedy not a good speaker? Come on....

    Jealosuy kills!

    September 17, 2009 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  10. ody

    we all know that racism doesn't exist in america.

    September 17, 2009 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  11. Murph

    Where were the tea-baggers when Bush was spending and driving up the deficit more than all of the previous presidents combined? The pundits can say what they want but President Carter is surely on to something. I read this morning where someone said that 5 yr. olds and 85 yr olds don't lie. The 5 yr. old doesn't know any better and the 85 yr. old doesn't care. As far as Wilson goes: South Carolinian who voted to keep the Confederate flag atop the Statehouse, Sons of the Confederate Army, denigrated the Black woman for admitting to being related to Helms, nah he loves Black people.

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

    If you have to ask if it is racist or not, then it shows a lack of understanding, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that there is a need to teach awareness about the subtle forms of racism.

    Fyi: whenever cultural stereotypes are used to insult a person, it is a racist action. Period.

    September 17, 2009 03:26 pm at 3:26 pm |
  13. Laura in KS

    Some of the signs at these so-called "Tea Parties" are indeed racist, however, I do not believe that everyone in opposition to Pres. Obama and the elected Dem. leadership is "racist." Hate-mongerers, ignorant fools, pawns–yes, but racist–not necessarily.

    September 17, 2009 03:26 pm at 3:26 pm |
  14. Terry

    Of course this caricature is racist. Any person who thinks otherwise is either ignorant or brain dead.

    September 17, 2009 03:26 pm at 3:26 pm |
  15. sadnbra

    What will it take to get health care reform with a public option? Do hospital have to start closing for many to see the light? Surely they will if people keeping using the emergency room for the family doctor. People wake up, swine flu seaon is here!

    September 17, 2009 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  16. GOPer

    Call it what it really is...the deplorable photoshop of the witch doctor is racist (period) from the GOPer fringe. Shameful and pathetic.

    September 17, 2009 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  17. yougottabekidding

    Of course it is! Those tea baggers attracted people who were just waiting on an opportunity to expresss their racial views!

    September 17, 2009 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  18. Minnesotan

    Satire still retains some sort of cerebral input. This type of statement is racism that extolls hate, stereotypes, lack of education and a fundamental unwillingness to have a meaningful dialogue.

    September 17, 2009 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  19. D. A. Reuter, Bremerton, WA

    It is racism from totally ignorant people who live in the "Dark Ages" and who cannot accept that the treasonus Confederates lost the Civil War and that we have a POTUS that does not look like them.

    TEA Party people: If you don't want to pay taxes, let us see how loud you get when the bridge you drive over each day to get to work, collapses just like I-35 in the Twin Cities and it will never be replaced because no taxes were collected and the Members of Congress failed to do their collective duties as mandated by Article I, Section Eight of the Constitution of the USA. Why don't you educate yourselves and read the Constitution, it is a socialist document. The original Tea Party was protest against multinational business.

    September 17, 2009 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  20. Mark D

    How is the image racist? Isn't Obama black? Aren't the protests centered around him pushing a radical Health Care proposal. So some think of his plan voodoo Health Care and if the picture fits, post it. Were pictures of Reagan or bush as cowboys racist? Stop the race garbage and get over it! Take the criticism and bear it. It might be good to even weigh it, ya think?

    September 17, 2009 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  21. yougottabekidding

    90% of the signs shown at that demonstration were racist! All these people crawling out of the woodwork. They are all related! One big happy family!

    September 17, 2009 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  22. jim

    You can change the term to satirical or whatever you want. But when it comes down to it, we all know what the foundation of it is. Jimmy Carter explained it better than I can. It's based on racism. Period, the end. If you're going to be a racist, at least have the courage to admit it. Folks in the Tea Party who are photoshopping the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES onto a witch doctor are racist. People who show up at rallies with machine guns are crazy. We can use more politically correct terms for these things, but what's the point. if you are racist, stand up and admit it. if you are a gun totin' nut job, be honest with yourself (and your psychiatrist).

    September 17, 2009 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  23. Jimmy the Greek

    Racists come in ALL colors, shapes, and sizes. NONE is acceptable.

    However, democrats are simply using the standard-old RACE-CARD to deflect criticism of this Administration.

    It won't work this time. You are calling the MAJORITY of America "racist". Democrats have lost what little good sense they had left.

    September 17, 2009 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  24. Blutarski

    It is tacky and irreverent, but free speech. I think the reference went to President Obama's statements regarding health care and Doctors, like when he said, (I'm paraphrasing) you might not need that operation, maybe all you need is the medication. He took on the role of a Doctor type when he made that statement. I don't understand the racial context. I don't think any one race has a monopoly on witch doctors in their culture. You can find the similar "witch doctor" types in most ancient cultures, including early European cultures. It doesn't really point to any one racial stereotype.

    September 17, 2009 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  25. phoenix86

    Definately NOT racist.

    Definately NOT saterical.

    Just factual.

    September 17, 2009 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
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