More Racist Attacks on President Obama

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

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?


  1. Darin Johnson

    I have not seen the picture.
    Is it necessarily the case that comparing President Obama to a witch doctor in the context of the health care debate is racist? What I mean is, the image of a witch doctor could be intended simply to imply that Obama is a quack, that the cure may be worse than the disease, or whatever. If Hillary Clinton had won, the image probably wouldn’t have been a witch doctor, but a medieval barber with a bunch of leeches or whatever. The point being that the choice of a witch doctor is probably due to Obama’s race, but it may not be racist (i.e., a Black critic of Obama — assuming we could find one — may have chosen the same image).
    My peeve here is that ANY criticism of Obama from his political opponents is automatically chalked up to racism. That’s dirty pool — as President, he’s a perfectly fair target for criticism, even heated criticism. The noise against Bush, for example, did not have a racial tone, but it could hardly have been more vile than it was. We’re all going to have to be grownups.
    I wonder whether anyone would like to comment on the extreme stratification in approval of Obama by race — Whites are something like 41%, Blacks 97%. Race is more strongly correlated with approval of Obama than party! Is this good for America? For Blacks?

  2. Victor Ray

    Hey Darin,

    First, white people have supported 100% of white presidential candidates in every national election until Obama. Does that mean they are all racist? It certainly has not been good for the country or race relations generally. Second, 89% of Black voters supported Kerry, so, it is not a huge jump from 89 to the 97 you cite. Yes, race correlates strongly with support for Obama, but it also correlated strongly with black flight from the historically (and currently) racist republican party, who originated the so-called “southern strategy” to explicitly play on white fears of people of color. That strategy helped the republican party hold political dominance for like thirty years, and has turned the Supreme Court into a right wing stronghold. Were you protesting the white racism inherent in that strategy?

    As for a witch doctor not being a racist caricature, that is absurd. You say that the image was “probably” chosen because of Obama’s race. This a part of the psychological definition of racism (i.e. a negative stereotype attributed to a person because of their race, which disposes one to prejudge them). So, if it is definitionally racist, protests to the contrary don’t help much. I prefer to define racism more structurally, but the psychological definition does still hold some value.

    It is also simply not true that “ANY” criticism of Obama is “chalked up to racism.” I know of many biting criticisms of Obama from the left that haven’t been racist. There are also those on the right, (although they are way too few) who have genuine critiques of Obama’s policies and don’t have to resort to racist characterizations to get them across. For instance, Governor Sanford’s refusal to take federal bailout funds wasn’t necessarily “racist” in the crass way this cartoon is (although refusal to take the funds, if it had stood, may have had a disproportionate impact on people of color, which is an institutional form of racism). I have been pretty critical of Obama myself, mainly because I don’t think he goes far enough when confronted with racism. He tends to equivocate, (as he did in this case) and then give white the benefit of the doubt because it is the politically expedient thing to do. I would prefer if he told it like it is more, and didn’t shrink from calling white cops racist. He has more than enough data to back a statement like that.

    As for the criticisms of Bush, they also had a racial (under)tone. It is just that whites have a hard time understanding their unearned privileges in racial terms. Bush definitely got many of his advantages because of his race. He greatly gained from affirmative action in the form of his father’s political connections getting him into Harvard and Yale when his clearly sup-par intellect couldn’t do it. White privilege also helped him as his alcoholism and drug use (cocaine, marijuana) were seen by the media as largely a passing phase of white boys being boys. I wish more people would have pointed out Bush’s whiteness, perhaps it would help the country get over its racial illiteracy. As James Baldwin said, “as long as you think you are white, there is no hope for you.”

  3. Darin Johnson

    Victor Ray, don’t preach at me. I get bored easy.
    Nice of you to concede that it’s okay for Obama’s Lefty supporters to criticize him with no fear of being accused of racism. That’s a major weight off for them, I bet. And your own bravery, my goodness, to post here in from of God and everybody that Victor Ray himself is critical of Obama sometimes! If I didn’t know you as well as I do I’d accuse you of blasphemy.
    So listen, I know Blacks have been loyal to the Democrats like 14-year-old girls at an N’Sync concert (or whatever they’re listening to now). If Kerry had won, I’d probably ask the same question. But since it’s Obama, the effect is obviously even more profound. So I’ll ask again: does it make sense for any racial group to sell itself lock, stock, and barrel to a political partly like Blacks have to the Democrats?
    I’m not interested in reading any more pamphlets from you. If you want to discuss, and I certainly do, you’ll have to take a more reasonable tone. I hope you do.

  4. Victor Ray

    Actually, Governor Sanford was a Republican, and not accused of racism for opposing the bailout. I don’t know how my tone is preachy, or unreasonable, in that I backed up my claims (i.e. blacks have longs supported democrats, people on both right and left have criticized Obama without racism, Bush’s whiteness brought him unearned and undeserved privileges, and whites usually can’t see the benefits that their race brings them, and a basic psychological definition of racism). If you would like citations, I am happy to oblige. Why is my tone unreasonable? When you don’t provide a basic definition of racism yet claim that it is absent in this case. That is unreasonable.

    As for black support of the Democratic party-it makes sense in a democracy for a group of people to vote in their self-interest, just as white have historically done. If political parties don’t like that, perhaps they should represent the interests of the voters they hope to attract. It is not Obama’s fault that his opponents have pursued a racist strategy for the last thirty years. It seems that the Republican party should be receiving as much of your ire as Obama is, given that they drove blacks (and are now doing a good job with Latino/a’s) from the party. Don’t hate the player…

  5. Darin Johnson

    Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. I’ve been trying to get somebody here to define “racism” in a coherent way, but this is the first time anybody has asked me to define it. How refreshing.
    There are two definitions in Merriam-Webster.
    1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
    2 : racial prejudice or discrimination
    The second is so broad as to be practically meaningless. By that definition, who among us is not racist — including the founders of this site, of course. So we’ll focus on the first. I suspect the issue hinges on two things — 1) that word “primary,” and 2) the “inherent superiority” bit.
    By that definition, it’s hard for me to see how a picture of Obama dressed as a witch doctor is necessarily racist. If I oppose Obama because I think he’s a hard-core Lefty (which I do) and I want to make the point that his ideas about health care are nonsense (which they are), then I might choose a salient characteristic of Obama to make a vivid, memorable image. You can’t use a White guy’s race in the same way because, in America and especially in American politics, White-guy-ness doesn’t stand out. Obama himself has used his race in this way, to his advantage of course (“I don’t look like those other Presidents”).
    What’s the problem, Victor Ray? Here’s what I think it is: you don’t mind your side mentioning somebody’s race when it suits your purposes, but you can’t stand it when the other side does. It’s about politics. What do you think? Did I hit that nail on the head?
    I’m not sure how your back-up actually supports your position. Maybe I don’t understand the link you’re trying to make. But please note that an assertion of White-privilege is not only not evidence, it’s question-begging — assuming as true the very question that is to be proven. You can’t use that without backing it up too, and I’d appreciate if the backup wasn’t just a bunch more observations of disparate-impact. It has to go deeper. You can do it, Victor Ray! I have confidence in you!

  6. Victor Ray

    So, aside from ignoring my substantive points (i.e. people on the right have criticized Obama without being accused of racism, the answer to your insipid question about voting behavior in a democracy) what you claim doesn’t really contradict me. Of course I agree that “white-guy-ness” doesn’t stand out in American politics. That is part of the definition of white privilege. So thanks for backing me up.

    My argument is exactly that you can’t use a white guys race in the same way…whites don’t have to because most people only think of race when it comes to people of color. Whites get a pass, and Bush was rarely accused of making decisions based on his race, although he should have been (thanks Kanye). Bush moved into a community post retirement that had illegal restrictive covenants until around 2000. Where was the out cry about the fact. Where were the post-racial conservative critics lamenting the fact that he had failed to transcend his race. This isn’t question begging, it is induction from the historical record.

    As for your definition of racism, it is funny that you reject the second one that is much more in line with social psychology and would contradict your point. This is a phenomena know as confirmation bias, in which a subject refuses to accept evidence that contradicts their preconceived notions and they cling harder to what they already believe. Thanks for demonstrating.

    As for “my side” mentioning race, I am not a democrat, so I don;t know which side you are talking about. If you mean the left, I think you will find that large portions of the left have no problem mentioning race, and not just when it helps us politically. I tend to believe that race and racism will effect how people view the world, and much social science evidence (stretching back to Du Bois) supports this fact. So, no I don’t have a problem when race is mentioned concerning Obama. However, the way it is often mentioned, as in the cartoon you are so fond of, is racist. I do have a problem with that, and with whites or people of color who try and deny that reality.

    By the way, most teachers disallow dictionaries as primary sources once people are past the 10th grade. If you want a more comprehensive definition supported by social science, you can start with Allport’s “The Nature of Prejudice” (1954) then move to Carmichael and Hamilton’s “Black Power” next Feagin’s “Racist America” and “Systemic Racism.” After that, for a good analysis of the current state of racial ideology check out Bonilla-Silva’s “Racism Without Racists.” Oh, and thanks for your confidence. I really appreciate it!

  7. …and this is why conversations about ‘race relations’ will ultimately fail in this country. depending on our group identity (the dominant group or people of color) our systems of knowledge are completely different.

    you fought the good fight, victor ray.

  8. @ding – I get your point about systems of knowledge. But the conversation only “fails” because the group that’s wrong – white Americans in this case – won’t accept the truth.
    @Victor Ray – Darin Johnson didn’t come here to learn about racism, personal, institutional or otherwise. He came here to try to convince us that racism and white Americans aren’t the evil we perceive. You notice he can’t accept that we don’t think of every individual white person as an evil person? You notice he hasn’t commented on the white-washing of US history? So, it’s clear to me he’s not willing to accept much else, no matter how much research we have and no matter how much we point out clear indicators of his own racial bias. Darin Johnson is a racist and he wishes to remain so. Leaving him to be a racist doesn’t mean we agree or condone his racism. It just means we refuse to waste time and energy on him.

  9. Victor Ray

    I don’t really believe I will convince Darin Johnson, and the tone of his posts (ignoring the answers to the questions he asked, getting more personal, disregarding his own evidence, etc.) sort of supports this belief. I mean, this is someone who actually cites the bell curve as scholarship. The point, for me anyway, is as a grad student and future educator (hopefully) you sometimes have to argue with the most coarse replies, because they will come up in class. That is why I took the time. Hopefully, every once in a while someone can be convinced….other wise why do it?

  10. @No1Kate – I know. It’s just that these conversations are soooo frustrating. It’s like talking to a Birther. You can cite the evidence (you know, *history*) and still, there’s a cognitive dissonance that can’t be broken through. It’s amazing, this defiant ignorance of what’s in front of them.

    What would it cost folks to at least acknowledge that structural racism exists? Why is it so hard to get folks to deal with this?

  11. What will it cost? On one hand, nothing. Cause just acknowledging the problem doesn’t mean they’re committed to changing anything.
    But on the less cynical other hand . . . Robert Jensen does better going through “white people’s fears” than I can. For example:

    The first, and perhaps most crucial, fear is that of facing the fact that some of what we white people have is unearned. … A second fear is crasser: White people’s fear of losing what we have — literally the fear of losing things we own if at some point the economic, political, and social systems in which we live become more just and equitable.

    Here’s the full essay:
    Here’s some of his thoughts on white privilege:
    Thanks for causing me to go back and rediscover Jensen. I first read his work a few years ago, but then I discovered Tim Wise and kinda forgot about Jensen. :/ I don’t think he writes regularly like Wise, but in any case, you’ll find Jensen an added value in any anti-racism work you’re involved in, activism or just for the sake of personal improvement.

  12. brown ex-academic, ex-corporate wench turned social do-gooder, about to become a corporate wench again because she likes having a real paycheck

    Finding that you’re black, I “should hope” you’ll understand – I’m mad at that self-description! LOL! But I can’t hate. I’ll have to drop by your “house” more often!

  13. @ Darin – I’ve come to ignore most of your comments just as you ignore mine. But while scrolling up to find someone else’s comment, I came across an observation of yours that leftist can criticize Pres. Obama without fear of being accused of racism.
    Let’s get something straight, Darin. You can criticize Pres. Obama’s policies all you want. But when you use racist imagery to do it, you’re gonna be accused of racism! There’re lots of other images the guy could’ve used to describe a “doctor” who very well may kill you.
    But I gotta say. I think a part of Darin wants to change. I think deep down in his heart of hearts, Darin wants to rid himself of racism. Otherwise, why continue to come here? What are you doing? Spying on the enemy or something? Truth be told, it’s folks like Darin who make me wonder if white people actually do have some kinda secret call or something during lunch breaks, where you all get together and discuss what dribble to fall back on for the next week. And I tell you what. I got white friends. I can get the number!

  14. @No1KState – ha ha! don’t hate me because i want a market rate paycheck!

    thanks for the links, especially to jensen. it’s been a while since i’ve had to read all this stuff and it’s great – though so hard, for different reasons – to get back to it.

    sooner or later, the darins of this world will have an epiphany of sorts.

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