Three Blatant Acts of Racism Against Obama

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama. Steve Jurvetson/Flickr.com

When Barack Obama became the first African American elected president on Nov. 4, 2008, the world viewed it as a boon to race relations. But after Obama took office, he was the target of racist illustrations, conspiracy theories and Islamophobia. Can you name any of the tactics used to attack him on the basis of race? This analysis covers three blatant acts of racism against Obama.

The Birther Debate

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has been dogged by rumors that he’s not an American by birth.

Instead, the “birthers”—as the people spreading this rumor are now known—say that the president was born in Kenya. Although Obama’s mother was a white American, his father was a black Kenyan national. His parents, however, met and married in the United States, which is why the birther conspiracy has been deemed equal parts silly and racist.

The birthers have also refused to accept as valid the documentation provided 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. This move did not completely quiet the rumors about Obama’s origins. But the more documentation the president has released about his birthplace, the less ground the birthers have to suggest that the black president did not belong in office.

Political Caricatures of Obama

Before and after his presidential election, Barack Obama has been depicted as subhuman in graphics, email transmissions and posters. While turning politicians into caricatures isn't new, 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 portraying 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.”

The “Obama Is Muslim” Conspiracy

Much like the birther debate, the debate over whether Obama is a practicing Muslim appears to be racially tinged. While the president did spend some of his youth in the predominantly Muslim country of Indonesia, there’s no evidence that he himself has practiced Islam. In fact, Obama has said that neither his mother nor his father were particularly religious. At the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2011, the president described his father as a “nonbeliever” whom he met one time, according to the Los Angeles Times, and his mother as having “a certain skepticism about organized religion.”

Despite his parents’ feelings about religion, Obama has said repeatedly that he practices Christianity. In fact, in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, Obama describes his decision to become a Christian during his time as a political organizer on Chicago’s South Side. He penned the memoir long before his foray onto the national political scene and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, giving him little reason to declare himself a Christian if he were really a Muslim.

So, why do rumors about Obama being a Muslim persist, despite his declarations to the contrary and the very public scandal surrounding his former pastor Jeremiah Wright? NPR senior news analyst Cokie Roberts faults racism. She remarked on ABC’s “This Week” that a fifth of Americans believe Obama’s a Muslim because it’s unacceptable to say, “I don’t like him ’cause he’s black.” On the other hand, “it’s acceptable to dislike him because he’s a Muslim,” she declared.

Like the birther movement, the Muslim conspiracy movement against Obama highlights the fact that the president’s different. He has a “funny name,” a so-called exotic upbringing and Kenyan heritage. Rather than point out their distaste for these differences, some members of the public find it convenient to label Obama a Muslim, which serves to marginalize him and undermine his fitness to lead the nation.

Wrapping Up

Not every attack against President Obama is racist, of course. Some of his detractors take issue with his policy alone and not with his skin color. When the president’s opponents use racial stereotypes to undermine him or accuse him of lying about his origins because he’s different—biracial, bred outside of the continental U.S. and born to a Kenyan father with a “strange name”—an undercurrent of racism is often at play.

As former President Jimmy Carter said in 2009: “When a radical fringe element of demonstrators …begin to attack the president of the United States as an animal or as a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler…people who are guilty of that kind of personal attack against Obama have been influenced to a major degree by a belief that he should not be president because he happens to be African American.”