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. Harold

    Some folks are racist plain and simple no getting around it. Unless you have felt the sting of racism you don't have a clue as to what actions are preceived to be racist. As the saying goes, walk in my shoes. People hear only what they want to hear. Carter said "SOME" folks not "everyone" who disagrees with the President's polices. Of course everyone has the right to disagree and because of that they "are not" racist. What is so hard to understand about that. If you are not a racist, ignore Carter and continue to voice disapproval. That is your right. But don't play the "dumb" card by saying there is "no" racism in some of those who are voicing their disapproval. That is disingenuous.

    September 17, 2009 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
  2. SLM

    Guess it is too much to ask of CNN and MSNBC to show what the majority of signs are saying.........but, hey that's your gig, show only a portion and show only what you what them to see. Wake up folks and expand your horizons and see that the majority of signs are protesting taxes and government waste............get it!

    September 17, 2009 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  3. TPaine18

    How is this any different from Bush posters with a Hitler mustache?

    September 17, 2009 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  4. T'SAH from Virginia

    ALL of what this article says may be true – even when you talk about different eras of time when other groups were portrayed negatively – Jews, Italians, etc. This statement, "... I suspect the Tea Party crowd believes that the currency of whiteness has been devalued" is SET for THIS time – 2009 – and is driven by Whites who used to wear white robes to HIDE who they are....

    NOW, the white robe is off and they are PROUD to be who they are because the REPUBLI-CAN'Ts are embracing and allowing them to do what they want at rallies and town hall meetings without calling them out!! The REPUBLI-CAN’Ts are STUCK in the MUD with the rhetoric they allowed to run their party and now it's difficult to separate themselves from it!!!

    September 17, 2009 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
  5. Kevin B

    I knew it wouldn't be long before the bigots started with outright racial epithets, that is what happens when one party is devoid of ideas and any goodwill.

    Logic and reason are substituted by anti-intellectual bigotry and hatred. I say just step aside and let the true ugly face of the GOP come through.

    September 17, 2009 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
  6. Jester

    About as satirical as the photos of Bush with a full beard and turbine, or Bush as Jesus Christ, or Bush compared to monkeys. There is a double standard here only visible to those who wear racist glasses. Isn't Obama half white?

    September 17, 2009 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  7. not onesided...

    When we put every race on earth in one place 'DON'T EXPECT A PERFECT UNION" Never excisted and never will. When families of the same race don't get along..What is it you people want...!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    September 17, 2009 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  8. RR

    Bush was compared to a chimp, shown as Hitler, called a war criminal and murderer, and every late night talk show made fun of him.

    I guess they were racists towards Bush because he was white.

    September 17, 2009 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  9. Bill

    I didn't vote for Obama and am not particularly fond of him but that poster is way out of line.

    September 17, 2009 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  10. Mark

    Does it matter? Can anybody ever use a cartoon and type of satire if it apposes Obama's Marxist Policies?

    September 17, 2009 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  11. lil man

    it is definitely not satirical. The real deal is that it racist because of the context it is in. What's the purpose???? I believe the Tea baggers aren't wrapped too tight or under some heavy medication . that might be a fact!!

    September 17, 2009 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  12. Louie, Long Island, NY

    Racist sterotyping for sure. If you disagree with his political point of view stick to the issue. Don't try to belittle someone because of their point of view. There are avenue available to state your point of views for your argument, without restoring on childless posters of witch doctors, sambo or other, stupid caricature. If you have a real argument, please state It and offer one that is better for the American People. Otherwise, it appears that the tea party movement doesn't have anything positive to offer.

    September 17, 2009 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  13. DR

    Darn rights it's racist. Here in Utah behind the Zion curtain, I hear the Mormon faithful using the N word all the time, rather than President (before Obama). The religious right in this country is still white to the core. These people better hope the Messiah doesn't come as a black man.

    September 17, 2009 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  14. johnathan

    Let's see...
    Posters of Obama as an african witch doctor
    Poster saying we already have africans in the zoo, why the white house?

    Naaaaa. not racist at all. NOT

    when will a right wing leader tell ther rabid mutts to act civilized.

    September 17, 2009 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  15. Thomas5

    There comes a time when the cry of "racism!" is no longer going to carry any weight.

    The Left is rapidly becoming the boy that cried wolf.

    September 17, 2009 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  16. Shirley In California

    In some ways, I actually feel sorry for these people. I keep hoping when I see footage of these events on Keith Olbermann – that God will work one of his miracles and just open up the earth swallow up the adults and destroy them. Here's to hoping.

    September 17, 2009 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  17. Pepou

    This picture makes me physically sick and makes me ashamed of living in the same country as these racist, ignorant, unpatriotic tea-baggers. I never thought I would witness this in 2009 !

    September 17, 2009 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  18. Karen

    Racist plain and simple. It is so sad that the most ignorant people have the most to say. I never knew how loud STUPID can be. Keep going idiots. Let the rest of the entire world know how ignorant the US is becoming.

    September 17, 2009 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  19. Reiner

    What !!!!!!
    Not racist? You got to be kidding.
    Today i dropped a log on my leg. Got to go and see my doctor. Oh yes it is free of charge along with my regular medical check up next week.
    I live in Canada.

    September 17, 2009 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  20. Linda

    Racism at its finest.

    September 17, 2009 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  21. Darth Vadik, CA

    If this came from normal people, than I would say it was satirical, but coming from Republicans, there is a nuance of racism in it from few and pure hatred from the rest.

    September 17, 2009 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  22. Farrell in Houston

    If President Obama were a "witch doctor" maybe he'd be able to cast out the hate and ignorance of these people. POOF, it's done.

    September 17, 2009 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  23. Portland, Maine

    This is an easy question: Racist

    September 17, 2009 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  24. jeff jackson, alabama

    I'm a registered Republican who thinks
    Sarah Palin is the hottest thing since
    the" Tomb Raider" movies. I'm against the
    health care plan because I don't like some
    of the details I've read in it.
    But listen !!! When you dipict the President
    (who is black) with a bone in his nose and
    head feathers....That's as racist as a communist
    is red. No room for that in our politics!!!

    September 17, 2009 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  25. Independent in NYC

    I don't understand Sara Palin's spritual leader in Alaska is a witch doctor and it seems fine with the GOP so what's the problem?

    September 17, 2009 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
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