President Obama seems to be setting records as a black elected official for the number of hyper-racist attacks on him that are spiraling around the web, including many racist photos and images. We have discussed several of these here before. Now there is one photoshopped photo circulating of him as a witch doctor, part of an attack on his health care reforms.
One of the weaknesses in most conventional social science analysis of racial matters in the United States is the neglect of the power of such visual racist images. The mainstream analytical concepts are racial stereotypes, biases, prejudices, and bigot-generated discrimination. These are useful but quite inadequate for getting at how broad and deep the dominant white racial framing actually is — a major reason I have been developing the concept of a broad white racial frame, which accents the importance of such elements as racist images, racist emotions, stereotypes of sounds, and myth-narratives of whiteness as well.
Visual images often capture much attention and get deeply imbeded in minds and brains, and thus they may well be harder to counter than other types of racist material that gets imbeded there. Over at Ronald Shone’s clinical website he discusses the power of images thus:
The most important thing about visual images is that they can influence the body. This does not apply to all images, but only to those images in which you are involved. The image, however, does not have to be about reality, it can be a totally imaginary (unreal) image. … A strongly formed image will lead to an emotional response or some other bodily response. . . . But it is not only the body that is influenced by images; images also influence behaviour…. A strong image leads to behaviour consistent with the image being formed in the mind’s eye. It does not matter whether the image is one of reality or unreality.
There is also discussion of the power of visual images here, in a scholarly paper by Claire Wright at judicialview.com.
TalkingPointsMemo has a story about a very vivid and very racist photoshopped image of President Obama as a supposed African “witch doctor” going around the web, one that was forwarded by, among others, a prominent Florida neurosurgeon and AMA Delegate, Dr. David McKalip, to a Google listserv with links to the Tea Party movement. The doctor wrote that he thought this image was “Funny stuff.” TPM comments on McKalip’s activism against health care reform:
McKalip founded the anti-reform group Doctors For Patient Freedom… Last month he joined GOP congressmen Tom Price and Phil Gingrey, among others, for a virtual town hall to warn about the coming “government takeover of medicine.”
TPM called and talked with him about this racist image:
Asked about the email in a brief phone interview with TPMmuckraker, McKalip said he believes that by depicting the president as an African witch doctor, the “artist” who created the image “was expressing concerns that the health-care proposals [made by President Obama] would make the quality of medical care worse in our country.” McKalip said he didn’t know who created it. But pressed on what was funny about an image that plays on racist stereotypes about Africans, McKalip declined to say, instead offering to talk about why he opposes Obama’s health-care proposals.
Actually the photo is built on a photo of a person in Papua New Guinea, not in Africa. TPM suggests that it was unlikely that
McKalip himself was aware of this when he forwarded the email. It was he who first used the term “witch doctor” in our phone interview, and he didn’t quibble with our suggestion that the image played on stereotypes of Africans.
The AMA responded to one blogger’s protests with a message condemning such racist stuff:
Delegates to the American Medical Association are selected through their individual state and specialty societies, and their individual views and actions do not, in any way, represent the official view of the AMA. We condemn any actions or comments that are racist, discriminatory or unprofessional.
Most recently McKalip apparently resigned as an elected official with the AMA. I wonder if the AMA will use this as a teaching moment as they say.
I might note that my one experience in giving a talk on racial issues at a major medical school, one that was having major problems with racist actions by white medical students, was that they cancelled my talk when two professors at the xerox machine saw my handout dealing candidly with white-racist thought and actions. I do not see much interest in historically white medical schools or in the AMA in dealing with racism in the medical profession. Maybe someone else has seen something I have missed?