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. Paul C.

    Anyone who doesn't think the witch doctor, monkey, joker, hitler, dealth panels, you lie, banned school speech, and all the other overt epithets are not racist is delusional.
    As a member of the shrinking white majority I understand the fear and angst they feel but it is too late. They are on a sinking ship and the good old days are not coming back, 1986 was the time to make a noise with amnesty I. Amnesty II is coming and they should relax and accept the inevitable otherwise they invite a heart attack.

    September 17, 2009 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  2. What have we come to?

    Funny how these suddenly outraged arbitors of what is acceptable or unaceptable criticism of a president were strangely quiet while the previous president was depicted as Hitler, Satan, a clown and subject to other vicious attacks. Hypocrisy is no better than racism. While there are racists in every political party (don't tell me racism wasn't a factor in deciding why some blacks voted for Obama), suggesting that opponents of the president's policies are racists is not only ugly, it suggests the democrats are losing the political debate and have to resort to playing the race card. That really is pathetic.

    September 17, 2009 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  3. IndyVoter

    Why is this even a question CNN??? And by the way, where is the picture? You can't ask the question without plainly displaying the image. OF COURSE IT IS racist! Just like:

    The song, "Barack the Magic Negro"
    Watermelons on the White House Lawn
    Obama Welfare Bucks w/Fried Chicken & Kool-Aid
    President Obama depicted among former Presidents as a black box with white eyes

    All of these examples were proliferation and disseminated by Republican party leaders and well known spokespersons (not fringe nuts on the street).

    September 17, 2009 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  4. LacrosseMom

    The far-right-fringe, have been doing all they can to depict the President of the United States as someone questionable, unAmerican, foreign, scary, etc. This is the typical far-right agenda.

    The Republicans forget that ......58%...... of Americans actually SUPPORT President Obama, and their hate, lies and fear-mongering is going to damage the GOP brand.

    Its is racist.

    September 17, 2009 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  5. Jane wants the truth

    I cannot figure out why some don't understand that people ARE angry about Big Government. These protests are not being "ogranized" by one party or party affiliate, they are grass roots. These are Americans who are tired of being beaten and worker harder for less because the government is getting so big it cannot even take care of itself. It is sad that when someone does disagree with policy they are being called racist. This is a sad day when folks have to resort to that type of characterization when there are people out there who want to stand up for their rights as citizens of the United States of America.

    September 17, 2009 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  6. I am sick and tired of people crying racism all the time.

    So put him on a surf board. Then that will be racist as well.

    September 17, 2009 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  7. New Age Democrat

    Sorry, I just dont see the racism in this one. It does seem lately however, that anything critical of Obama is now racist. Is it now impossible to not be racist if you disagree with his policies? The far left has really lost their minds trying to portray this kind of image as racism.

    September 17, 2009 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
  8. Jay

    Why are these idiots saying stupid things about Obama. Why didn't they protest when Bush was in Office doing nothing and putting this country in debt and with no houses and jobs?

    September 17, 2009 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
  9. Duke

    this is bad teste from few sad human beings

    September 17, 2009 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  10. Johnny the Boy

    If Bush can be portrayed as a chimp than Obama can be portrayed as a witch doctor. Even steven.

    September 17, 2009 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  11. Company You Keep

    If you hang with racists that makes you one. The Tea Party has not told these folks to leave their events, so they are part of the racists problem.

    September 17, 2009 03:36 pm at 3:36 pm |
  12. Jeff Spangler, Arlington, VA

    It's _both_ racist and satirical, and can be based on principled opposition to His overreaching agenda. The One knows this is a tough business. Get over it.

    September 17, 2009 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  13. Moosehead

    If the tea baggers were truly concerned American citizens, then they would realize that the President of the United States, is the face of the nation, their leader, the person who is in charge of keeping them safe, and as such they should show a little bit more respect for the President. Would these folks disrespect the flag of the country in such manner? Why disrespect the figurehead of the country,... you should be ashamed, that people from other countries have greater respect for Obama ,than do some of his countrymen. It's ok to disagree with Obama, and demonstrate against his policies,.. but can it not be done in a civil manner?... without having lunatics and carnival barker like Mark Williams leading the disgraceful circus.

    September 17, 2009 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  14. isn't Obama fair game?

    racist or not, isn't Obama fair game, (obviously his family is not), now that he is president

    every other president has had to endure all kinds of personal attacks from their heritage, to their gender, to their age

    Obama does not get a free pass just because he is black

    September 17, 2009 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  15. GI Joe

    He's a very smart and handsome man - no matter whether he wears a tux, a suit, or a witch-doctor outfit.

    Picture Dick Cheney in a loincloth - yyyyyuuuuukkkkkkk !

    It's not the outfit, it's the message that goes along with it that is offensive. (Right-wing-fringe-nuts are sending the rude, crude, ignorant rants to everyone – look at the picture and enjoy handsome, then throw up on the nearest GOP person you can find for their hate and fear-mongering).

    September 17, 2009 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  16. Walter

    How can you even pose this as a question. The racism of the Tea Baggers oozes from their every pore

    September 17, 2009 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  17. Willy Brown

    Democrats love playing the race card

    September 17, 2009 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  18. Right Leaning Independent

    A difference of opinion is racist according to Carter so I am sure that a witch doctor characterizaton would be considered racist to Carter and the far left liberals!!

    September 17, 2009 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  19. Ben

    Just like with the "birthers" all you have to do is ask yourself this question: Would they be doing this if he was white?

    The answer is no. It makes no sense to portray a white man as a witch doctor. And no one would have questioned his nationality if he was white either. It is undeniable and anyone who says otherwise is deluded.

    September 17, 2009 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  20. Deuce

    The peanut King. Carter is not an ex President. he is a Democrate.

    It is only about race now!!!!! Where are the tapes CNN, on Obama`s election run. Come on! Put em up...

    September 17, 2009 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  21. jaye

    The republicans always have an excuse for their hate spewing racist remarks.
    They have been "closet racist" for a long time, and now they're out of the closet and using racism at every turn...and especially at the tea baggers parties and town halls.
    Stop letting their racist rants and hate filled speeches take over the news channels – it's creating a BAD environment, and like nancy Pelosi said, creating a dangerous environment that will possibly lead to violence.

    September 17, 2009 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  22. yougottabekidding

    These talking heads like glen beck, hannity & limbaugh should be held accountable for instigating race baiting and political violence!

    September 17, 2009 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  23. Todd

    We cannot let race stand in the way of progress. Most of the people protesting President Obama at these rallies DO NOT MAKE OVER $250,000.00 a year yet they stand in the way of programs that would help them .Then they fight with these large corporations who would rip them off at every chance they get.

    Why would a person do that??


    September 17, 2009 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  24. JOE

    the signs and images are clearly racist in my opinion. i am white but not stupid. the tea baggers say they are just angry because they don't like where obama is taking the country. the president is doing everything he can to help our country. any democratic president would do the same thing. what exactly do the tea baggers not like? lower taxes on 95% of individuals? increased economical stability? stock market rebound? the fact is, these tea baggers are making fools of themselves. where were they when president bush ran up the deficit? where were they when 9 billion bucks went missing in iraq? where were they when our govt. handed out billions and billions of our tax money to the iraq people to try to gain their loyalty? why didn't they hold up signs of bush with a nazi symbol on his forehead? why didn't they march on washington and call bush a socialist? the tea baggers are a bunch of hypocrtes!

    September 17, 2009 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |

    Are you kidding, if people dont see this a racial, then you will never be able to convince them of what is. This is blatant racism and and its sad.

    September 17, 2009 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
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