In Post-Racial America, Black Officials Still Get Racist Caricatures

Over at the Comic Riffs blog of the WaPo, Michael Cavna, has a provocative January 28, 2009 entry about all the cartoonists who are drawing President Obama with big lips. (Cartoon from WaPo) He puts it this way:

An unnerving number of North America’s political cartoonists are bizarrely obsessed with President Obama’s lips. . . . If you don’t believe me, scan dozens of current political cartoons. For every Steve Benson or Mike Luckovich who is zeroing in on a swell, spot-on Obama, there seems to be a cartoonist who invokes “caricature” in the most grotesque sense of the word. Obama’s lips have been rendered in such unnatural tints, and at such dimensions. . . . And of course, this physical area of caricature — unlike, say, Obama’s ears — comes freighted with a legacy of ugly racism and cruel, blackface-era mockery.

He later asks if he is making too much of this trend among cartoonists.

Are too many cartoonists not subtly skilled enough to draw a deft caricature of our first African American president? I seriously doubt that’s it. When you truly study art, you delve deeply into all shapes and sizes and learn to “see” — and learn to see skin not as one single hue, but often as more than a dozen hues (subtle reds, flecks of green, etc.). Of course, perhaps a few cartoonists aren’t looking deeply enough at Obama. Yet even the most highly trained comic artists are quite fallible. As Comic Riffs contributor David Betancourt says of one comic giant: “Drawing large lips on an African American is a huge debate — I couldn’t read any of Will Eisner’s original ‘Spirit’ strips because I couldn’t stand the site of the way he drew [grotesquely caricatured] Ebony Ivory.”

Condoleezza Rice got a lot of the big lips racist caricaturing too, when she was Secretary of
state, as Ampersand points out. In this Oliphant cartoon (Source: Ampersand):

And remember the big lips on the Obama Waffles racist box satire stuff?

Some whites are arguing these classical caricatures are really harmless and not racist. That just shows their ignorance of US history. Anyone who has paid much attention to the many 1000s of racist cartoons and caricatures of black Americans over the last century knows that big lips are part of the standard racist caricature in the white racial framing of black Americans. They have been since at least the 1830s. Whites seem to want to make black folks have especially big physical features, even to an absurb level. Is this some kind of “physical envy”?

And racist images, to paraphrase the cliche, are worth a thousand words in communicating that very old white racist frame. Cartoonists were doing this racist stuff long before photographs and such appeared in the media, for centuries now.

Even rather thin-lipped folks like President Obama suddenly get thick lips because they are black. After the big lips, what? Over the next 4-8 years, are we going to see our President caricatured with chicken and watermelon on his plate? Then what, Michelle Obama as a mammy? Welcome to the post-racial America, indeed.


  1. Adam

    Joe shares his thoughts on racism in his article “Post-Racial America; Blacks Officials Still Get Racist Caricatures” on In it he goes on to describe the way in which African-Americans have come to be stereotyped through caricaturization, President Barack Obama being only the latest victim of the cartoonists’ pen. He very diligently notices how our President is commonly portrayed as having large lips; even though his lips are quite thin. The fact of the matter is that this is only one type of caricature African-Americans have had to endure for some time.
    It will be interesting to see whether or not President Obama will be depicted as “The Tom Caricature”, a caricature that emphasizes blacks’ eagerness to serve and please whites. This type of image has typically served to justify white oppression against non-white groups; a subtle way of suggesting that blacks willingly enjoy this type of behavior against them. More interesting, however, will be America’s response to these images of the Commander in Chief.

  2. subwaysurfer

    As an editorial caricature artist who is, as of this writing, currently experiencing Racist accusations from African American Congressman, Gregory Meeks, I feel obligated to weigh in on this issue. My editorial cartoon, featured in an October issue of The Wave Newspaper in Far Rockaway NY, features the Congressman, along with a political/business collegue, Senator Malcolm Smith. Both men are pictured milking dollars from a “cash cow” which represents the non profit organization, the two are under investigation for. Congressman Meeks refers to the cartoon depiction being reminiscent of the portrayal of Bkack elected officials in the reconstruction segment of the film, “Birth of a Nation.” Congressman blasts the Wave, and the cartoonist, me, Elgin Bolling, as being Racist.
    The fact that I am an African American artist perhaps may have been unknown to the Congressman before he went public in the media making his claim.

  3. subwaysurfer

    Meeks is upset with the physical portrayal of himself and his collegue, feeling that, as he explains to a reporter insulting to African Americans.

    Meeks as the above article points out, zeros in on the LIPS which is hs main sticking point. As an African American myself, I have no “racial ax to grind” and no “statement about race”to make. This cartoon, and other editorials line it featuring African Amerjcans is nothing more than standard issue procedure for caricature drawing. Without going into the history of the art form, let’s state what a caricature artist dies. He/She squashes, stretches, exaggerates, and amplifies facial features. If something is small it gets smaller, if long, it gets longer, if big, it gets bigger.

    Lips are, objectively, a prominent feature in African American. Condylar Rice has large lips. Beautiful large lips, I might add! It is how they appear on her face. To draw her lips, even slightly larger is NOT making a racist comment on African Americans, it’s emphasizing a facial feature the woman has.

    Obamas lips may not be arge in the way, Rapper/CEO Jay Z’s lips are large, but they objectively DO have a slightly darker hue.
    This is objective, observable, and yes, for caricature artists, a target to exploit, and we do.

  4. subwaysurfer

    The saying, Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, is equally true for ugliness, and yes, racism. Just because one sees a Bkack persons facial features caricatured is no reason whatsoever to jump to a racist conclusion kn the part KF the artist. It has more to do withhkw people process ad interpret images of themselves than anything else.
    In addition to being an editorial cartoonist, I work as a professional live party caricature entertainer in New York City. Often when drawing African Americans, I hear references to how I made their lips “too big” or drew them “looking like a Fat Albert, Cosby kids cartoon .” they do this,because their mind refers to the strongest visual image they can grab for comparison. Nothing more.

    I’ve written on this issue extensively in my blog. Feel free to visit


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