September 17th, 2009
02:37 PM ET
11 years ago

Obama as witch doctor: Racist or satirical?

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="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. Carlos

    As you liberals know, politics is a dirty business, your getting some of your own medicine, so hold your nose and swallow.

    September 17, 2009 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  2. Sniffit

    Why are we pretending this isn't a stupid question? What the heck is wrong with the media that they have to pretend so fervently that there is always two sides to everything? This is as clear as day: I won't call you a racist for not seeing the witchdoctor picture for what it is, but I will, without regret, shame or mercy, call you a godforsaken moron.

    September 17, 2009 03:13 pm at 3:13 pm |
  3. Steve in Las Vegas,NV

    Racist stereotyping isn't funny, it's very demeaning to way too many people.

    It is ok to protest and disagree, and march,etc, but the witch doctor is way over the top and hurtful.

    September 17, 2009 03:13 pm at 3:13 pm |
  4. T. K.

    Yes its racist, you don't see any black people there, all you have is old white people who have taken off their hoods but kept the sign's. I am looking for the burnings cross to come out at any time and the lynching to take place. White people are showing their true self now.

    September 17, 2009 03:13 pm at 3:13 pm |
  5. John

    Most White Americans are not Racists. Obama became the President because all those White Americans voted for him. If these Whites had not voted for him, Obama could never be the President.

    All the Whites who voted for Obama, were not Racists. Had they been Racists they would not vote for a Black as President.

    White Trash Americans are Racists. GOP consists of White Trash Americans. Rush Limbaugh is the King of White Trash Americans. Actually if you see Rush Limbaughs Photos he looks like Pig's Testicles 🙂

    September 17, 2009 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  6. Jerry

    How Obama intends to provide Medicare with cuts.

    September 17, 2009 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  7. Lisa, MI

    "but they reflect anger about where he is leading the country."

    If the posters are racist, there should not be a "but". The posters are racist period. End of Story.

    So much for a changed America, the rabid right wing looney nuts are supporting the GOP. They are sore losers and degenerates.

    September 17, 2009 03:15 pm at 3:15 pm |
  8. Loup Garou 782

    Screw the critics, it's a great depiction of the obama. Someone hace Ashley Frantz get back to me and explain what a "father headdress is" Having grown up in Oklahoma around people of the indian nations, I missed that one.

    September 17, 2009 03:15 pm at 3:15 pm |
  9. Jason

    Most...not all, but most republicans seem to be completely racist.

    September 17, 2009 03:15 pm at 3:15 pm |
  10. Debra

    The choice is obvious, as is the lack of intellectualism in the Tea Party protests. If these protesters would think half as much as they whine...

    September 17, 2009 03:15 pm at 3:15 pm |
  11. Crazy Harry

    It's hard to believe how wacky these wack jobs can get. It never ceases to amaze me.

    September 17, 2009 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  12. Shelly

    Ofcourse it is racist! These birthers and tea party mob were at the McCain/ Palin campaign rallies shouting " He's muslim" or " Kill him".
    They are a segment of society that can't accept America is changing like the rest of the world for the better. They are terrified! They live in darkness.!
    If they opened their minds, traveled around, read meaningful journals and literature( not the Beck or Limbaugh garbage) perhaps they may become enlightened.

    September 17, 2009 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |

    The Republican strategy to oppose Health Care Reform and to take down the Obama administration has been:

    First, in August, to create fear, especially in their base, by repeating lies about "Death Panels," "pulling the plug on grandma," etc;

    Then, in September, to generate and stoke hate, and thus reinforce the nonsense that their base has already been conditioned to believe, by means of the 'politics of personal destruction,' demonizing and dehumanizing President Obama, in part through racist imagery.

    The Republicans have proven beyond all reasonable doubt that they can't govern, but they sure are masters of this style of smash-and-burn politics.

    Well, if the leadership of the Republican Party has nothing better to sell the American people than fear and hate, hoping to stir emotions as a means to block necessary reforms, then the Democrats should be able to get a whole lot more for the people of this country than what Baucus proposed yesterday!

    September 17, 2009 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  14. Barbara Independent in NY

    There was nothing satirical about the offensive signs that the tea partiers carried.

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

    Who cares about racist people anyway? They are going to be there regardless. Always have and always will. We are just giving them credence into making them think that their stupidity really matters.
    True concerns about health care – yes - but trying to cover it up and act like the American people are stupid to their real intent – those days are over

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

    Lawd....these people where not being satirical....the media will do anything to spin things.....those people were being racist and the fact that the media and rightwing are doing so much spinning really proves.

    September 17, 2009 03:18 pm at 3:18 pm |
  17. Angela in Denver

    I am looking forward to how the Republicans spin this.

    September 17, 2009 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  18. Open Your 3rd Eye


    That rally today in Maryland was AWESOME 🙂

    GOP – How can you win 2010 without the YOUTH VOTE & BLACK VOTE ?

    Sorry, not gonna happen.

    Bye Now! 🙂

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


    Obama as Hitler? Not racist. Not necessarily cool, but us liberals did the same thing with Bush. Fair play.

    Obama as the Joker? Also not racist.

    Obama as a black savage witch doctor from darkest primitive Africa? Patently racist. Come on, seriously, you don't see that?

    September 17, 2009 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  20. Simmy

    Buckras are buck-wild in the Republican party.......Steele is the first black man I've ever known to have the qualities of a buckra.......Sadly, he raised all the sterotypes from the dead....his SELFISH ambitions trump integrity and all that used to matter in this country.....

    Dems.....WAKE UP!!

    September 17, 2009 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  21. Jackie in Dallas

    There is a huge difference between satire and racist material. If President Obama had been presented as an inept ER doctor, or as an inept accountant, that would be satire. Using a racial stereotype is racist. It is simple as that.

    When you have disagreements on policy, it is wiser to try and use logic and persuasion than ridicule and racists comments. The Tea Partiers need to learn to disassociate themselves from these nut cases if they want to voice legitimate concerns about the healthcare reform bills and be heard.

    I didn't agree with protraying President Bush as Hitler either, even though I violently opposed his policies and actions as President. Freedom of speech does not grant a person the right to lie about others, to materially hurt their ability to make a living, or to print or use their image without their consent, especially in such a despicable way.

    September 17, 2009 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  22. whataboutstudentloans

    I heard on the radiom the House just voted for the federal government to take over the student loan program. They will no longer use private banking as the middleman. Hmmmm, the federal government thinks it can save millions by managing it themselves. HA HA. I guess to them millions is nothing, since I only hear them talk in BILLIONS now (without batting an eye).

    September 17, 2009 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  23. Rita, NJ

    "Their general viewpoint, leaders say, is that there's been too much federal government intervention, particularly concerning health care and taxes."

    So let's demean the president by attacking his race? That's smart, real smart. How is this getting us closer to solving our problems? It's not, which is what the rabid right-wing nuts want. They want to keep the status quo and let the insurance companies continue to take us for ride.

    Can you say dumb?

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

    Racist of course! How could it not be?!

    Not all of the criticism towards Obama is rooted in racism, but I think that a large part of the most vocal of it is.

    September 17, 2009 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  25. Racism under every stone

    No, but I'm sure if you look hard enough you'll find something.

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