When Barack Obama became the first man of African descent to be elected president on Nov. 4, 2008, the world largely viewed it as a boon to race relations. After all, if the country could transcend its ugly racial history to elect a biracial black man president, wasn’t it a sign that the U.S. had come full circle as far as race relations were concerned? While no one of sound mind argued that Obama’s historic election meant that racism had vanished in the U.S., many did regard it as a sign that strife between the nation’s racial groups had dissipated to such a degree that Americans were willing to cross the color line in the voting booth, a remarkable achievement considering that race has traditionally colored election outcomes. Since President Obama has taken office, however, he’s been the target of racist illustrations, conspiracy theories and so forth. Can you name any of the tactics used to attack Obama on the basis of race? The list below outlines three of the most racist political attacks against President Obama.
The Birther Debate
Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has been dogged by rumors that he’s not really an American by birth. Instead, the “birthers”—as the people spreading this rumor are now known—believe that the president was born in Kenya. This is presumably because, although Obama’s mother was a white American, his father was a black Kenyan national. His parents met and married in the United States, though. This is why the birther conspiracy is largely considered silly at best and racist at worst. That’s because so-called birthers have consistently neglected to accept as valid the documentation released by Obama that proves he was born in Hawaii. Why is this racist? New York Times columnist Timothy Egan explained that the birther movement “has little to do with reality and everything to do with the strangeness of Obama’s background — especially his race." He continued, "Many Republicans refuse to accept that Obama could come from such an exotic stew and still be ‘American.’ …So, even though the certificate of live birth first made public in 2008 is a legal document that any court would have to recognize, they demanded more.”
When Donald Trump repeated the claims of birthers in April 2011, the president responded by releasing his long form birth certificate. It’s uncertain if this move will quell further rumors about Obama’s origins. It's increasingly clear, however, that the more documentation that's released listing Hawaii as his birthplace, the harder it becomes for birthers to deny that the country’s first black president does not belong in office.
Political Caricatures of Obama
Before and after his election to the presidency, Barack Obama has been painted time and time again as subhuman in graphics, email transmissions and posters used to undermine him. While it’s nothing new for politicians to be turned into caricatures, the ones used to criticize Obama frequently have racial overtones. The president has been portrayed as a shoeshine man, an Islamic terrorist and a chimp, to name a few. The image of his altered face has been shown on a product called Obama Waffles in the manner of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. The depictions of Obama as ape-like have arguably sparked the most controversy, considering that blacks have been portrayed as monkey-like for centuries to suggest that they’re inferior to other groups. Still, when Marilyn Davenport, an elected official in the Republican Party of Orange County, Calif., circulated an email depicting Obama and his parents as chimps, she initially defended the image as political satire. Mike Luckovich, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, had a different take. He pointed out to National Public Radio that the image wasn’t a cartoon but Photoshopped.
“And it was crude and it was racist,” he said. “And cartoonists are always sensitive. We want to make people think—we even want to tick people off occasionally, but we don’t want our symbolism to overwhelm our message. …I would never show Obama or an African American as a monkey. That’s just racist. And we know the history of that.”