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. ICARE

    There are many ways to argue diasgreements. Any pictures flaming the UGLY days, should not be tolerated, due to the sensitivity of the material.

    In other countries, seeing a woman topless on a beach is normal, but not in America. There are certain things that we need to FORGET....

    September 17, 2009 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  2. john

    It has nothing to do with race. Its called satirical comedy thats it. Anyone who is bothered by this, get real. Its ok for you liberals to portray Bush as a devil right, right??? People cant make fun of obama though, Hippocritocal society!!!!

    September 17, 2009 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
  3. Marie Laveaux

    Racist, period.

    September 17, 2009 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
  4. indignant independent

    The 'protest' images I've seen in the media recently makes me feel concerned for our great country's future. Maybe this was bound to happen because President BHO is the 1st non-Caucasian US President and it's such a major cultural change that some of our citizens just can't accept him no matter what his administration's policies are. As a Independent Caucasian voter I am disappointed with both sides of the issue, but the far right has crossed the line in expressing their opposition to health care reform IMO. I know there are sincere and reasonable people on both sides of the health care debate and I am hoping they can and will step up very soon to eclipse the extremists we are seeing in the media lately.

    September 17, 2009 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  5. Stu

    Pure satire. Stop playing the "race" card already. There have been extremely cruel caricatures of many political figures for as long as political satire has existed.

    September 17, 2009 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  6. Penny - Canada

    It can't be intended as satiric humor.
    These people have no sense of humor.

    September 17, 2009 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  7. no name calling

    I wish both sides would grow up and engage in meaningful dialogue.

    "You may say I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one. I hope someday you will join us, and the world can live as one."

    September 17, 2009 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  8. James_MO

    He has been call a communist, a nazi, a muslim terrorist and the anti-Christ by the far right. A witch-doctor is small time coming from the right wing nut-jobs. What's next: non-human cyborg? alien replicant? servant of Cthuhlu?

    Grow up Republican Party!!!

    September 17, 2009 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  9. Tim

    I like Pelosi's response the best. She says she's worried about the harsh statements made about healthcare and worried that it may lead to violence. People are making harsh statements because they don't like the healthcare solutions and the media will not call out and report on some of the double talk that is happening. So the solution is to get people to stop speaking out what they think is an irresponsible proposal? I think the solution is to stop people from proposing irresponsible legislation. I feel that Pelosi is the tail wagging the dog. I'm sure she thinks she's the dog, but she works for me.

    September 17, 2009 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  10. Travis

    I don't know that any of us mortals are qualified to comment on this. We should let Jimmy Carter do our thinking for us.

    Maybe we should task him with finding Bin Laden....or negotiating another peace agreement with N Korea....or solving the financial crisis. I bet he could really make the economy sing. Right!

    Enough of the reverse race baiting already. Lets look at the issues and move forward....but with careful thought....not high powered speeches. The detail really do matter. I do not want anyone railroading anything that is not realistic, financially viable and fair to all Americans.

    Get of the race issue already. It is getting old!!!!

    September 17, 2009 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  11. Sf guy

    Carter's a principled and insightfull southerner. If he says it's racism, it probably is.

    September 17, 2009 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  12. Emma

    The insanity which is going unchecked around having a black president says way more about some Americans than they can ever appreciate.

    Obama is astute and does not accuse his critics of being racist but anyone with some understanding of human behavior easily recognizes the profound denial of being racist when indeed they are.

    September 17, 2009 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  13. Dennis

    This administration thinks it is untouchable. They aren't getting half the crap that Bush did and they want to wine about . He needs to grow a pair and move on.

    September 17, 2009 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  14. Christian Values

    There's no two ways about it. Republicans are racist to the core. There are very few out there that are actually not racist.

    Why does Michael Steele remind me of Dave Chapelle? (you need to be familiar with Dave Chappelle to know that)

    September 17, 2009 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  15. Preston

    The ugliness from the right continues to speak for itself.

    September 17, 2009 04:10 pm at 4:10 pm |
  16. Jake

    hate fueled by ignorance is a very, VERY scary thing!

    September 17, 2009 04:10 pm at 4:10 pm |
  17. Allen in Hartwell GA

    Only Rush Limbaugh would say that the poster was anything but racist, and naturally any of the brainless that follow the lies.

    September 17, 2009 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
  18. Linda from Minnesota

    People need to respect the office of President. I was not a George Bush fan (either one of them) but I would never disrespect them. This country has lost its manners (both parties). Its not just government either. Look at Kanye West and Serena Williams – both so called role models.

    For everyone who is not happy with President Obama's agenda – that is fine. Our country is based on free speech and the right to disagree BUT do it respectfully. Its no wonder we are laughed at throughout the world. Its shameful and embarrassing. Grow up people.

    September 17, 2009 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  19. dave

    Anybody who states that this sort of thing is not racist is clueless or in denial. The tea party express spokesman was on CNN the other night and stated that these people are in a minority at their rallies; my response is why they are left in there at all. Why isn't the speakers at the rallies condemning these hateful signs (believe me, there were plenty of them at the one in the southern suburbs of Chicago during Labor Day weekend)? Seems a little strange don't you think?

    Free speech is one thing but eventually this type of talk is going to get out of hand and someone is going to get hurt. This crowd is getting uglier every single day and their leaders are doing nothing to stop it.

    September 17, 2009 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  20. Julia

    Typical GOP/right wing extremism. The "tea party" goers, lacking any multiculturalism, were exactly as the crowds that appeared at all GOP events. Very typical. And no matter how many of them crawl out of the hills and mountains, the fact is, they are what they are. He is still President of the United States.

    September 17, 2009 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  21. Brain Dead in Ohio

    Not racist at all... as long as we can call Republicans inbread rednecks, which we do.

    They're just mad the witch doctor's shoe size is higher than their collective IQ.

    September 17, 2009 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  22. Which doctor?

    Probably refers to his health plan.

    September 17, 2009 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  23. Jennifer, Canada

    I really find this very disturbing. Why don't these people stop and think that President Obama is bi-racial, his mother is white and his father is black. If they want to pick on a part of his heritage why not pick Kansas..... What is it with you people??? Be thankful you have a President who is thoughtful, intelligent, and wants to do right for all
    Americans. These people who rally should perhaps got a spend a year living in country where they would not the freedoms we have in North America and grow up!!

    September 17, 2009 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  24. Andy H

    Any depiction of Obama with a bone through his nose is blatantly racist. Criticise the man, his policies, but leave the racism at home. This type of racism is disgusting & those who propagate should be ashamed of themselves. It is the tea party organisers who are the neanderthals. Andy

    September 17, 2009 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  25. JOBLESS IN IOWA

    Once again, race is brought up by actual racists(Democrates)

    September 17, 2009 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
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