Obama as Witch Doctor: Racist or Satirical?

Ashley Fantz, CNN, Sept. 18, 2009

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 feather headdress and a bone through his nose, have been popping up in e-mails, on Web sites and at Tea Party protests for weeks.

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.

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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.”

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[Spelman College history professor William Jelani] Cobb said Obama’s election has also rekindled the historic rancor some whites feel against successful blacks.

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“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.

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“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.”

obamawitchdoctor.jpg
Res ipsa loquitur.

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