(CNN) -- Posters portraying President Obama as a witch doctor may be racist, organizers of Tea Party protests say, but they reflect anger about where he is leading the country.
A Tea Party rally protester holds a sign with President Obama depicted as a witch doctor.
The posters, showing Obama wearing a feather headdress and a bone through his nose, have been popping up in e-mails, on Web sites and at Tea Party protests for weeks.
The image has stoked debate and cast attention on the rallies, which have drawn people Tea Party organizers describe as on the fringe and not representative of the overall movement. Their general viewpoint, leaders say, is that there's been too much federal government intervention, particularly concerning health care and taxes.
The witch doctor imagery is blatantly racist, critics contend.
Others remind that presidents get made fun off all the time, and the election of a black president has only made racially charged political satire more sensitive.
While not denying the crudeness of the image, Tea Party organizers stressed that those who carry the signs are a few "bad apples." Watch how poster put spotlight on racism »
"That [witch doctor] image is not representative at all of what this movement is about," said Joe Wierzbicki, a coordinator of the Tea Party Express, a three-week series of protests across the country.
The anger the image portrays, however, "says to me that a lot of people in this country are angry about the direction that the administration and Congress are taking us," he said.
"And you're going to see a wide expanse of those people," he continued. "Some are going to be more extreme. Most of them are going to be in the mainstream of American politics, as evidenced by Obama's falling poll numbers."
An incendiary image such as witch doctor detracts from any hope for a cohesive message at the rallies, where many appear not to be associated directly with either the Republican or Democratic parties, said W. Joseph Campbell, a media professor at American University.
And previous infringements of good taste don't make it acceptable to Photoshop the president into a witch doctor.
"It's true that presidents before have had to endure some rough stuff, and there's nothing wrong with satire," Campbell said. "President Bush was morphed into Hitler. That was not excusable either. Just because it's happened in the past doesn't mean there isn't a line and it can't be crossed."
As a politics and African-American studies professor at Princeton University, Melissa Harris-Lacewell typically advocates discussion about the racist overtones in images or language bandied in public discourse.
"But I'm concerned in the age of Obama, too many of our public conversations about policy have been limited to a kind of investigative effort to determine whether opposition to him is based on race or substantive disagreement," she told CNN. "The problem is, it can be both."
Harris-Lacewell points out that Obama made his African father a part of his campaign narrative. Now his critics are trying to mock that heritage.
"This witch doctor image is racist in a very specific way because of his proximity to Africa," she said. "You can imagine there would have easily been a time when [Jewish New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg would have been portrayed in anti-Semitic ways. You can go back to political cartoons when Irish Democrats were mocked, Italians were lampooned."
Spelman College history professor William Jelani Cobb, who has written extensively about race and politics, points out the original Boston Tea Party was driven by colonists who frequently declared that they had been "enslaved" by the king of England. The men who led that revolt dressed up as Native Americans when they dumped the tea into Boston Harbor in 1773.
Hard to pin down and a seeming catch-all for general anger at the government, the modern Tea Party movement is grounded the belief that the federal government should stay out of state business. But "states' rights is also an argument with a history tied to racial segregation during the civil rights' era," Harris-Lacewell said. And so it comes full circle.
Cobb said Obama's election has also rekindled the historic rancor some whites feel against successful blacks.
"There is lots of connective tissue here," said Cobb. "The Atlanta race riot of 1906 was partly about this. The upsurge of riots at the beginning of the 20th century was driven in part by the fact that blacks were perceived to be moving up in society -- at the expense of whites.
The Atlanta race riot, which left 25 black people and two white people dead, was sparked by a series of false news reports about black people committing crimes, inciteful rhetoric from white politicians and an overall fear by whites that blacks were starting to make progress socially and politically in the south.
"Now we have a black president, which means, on its most basic level, that a black man has more power than any single white citizen in this country," Cobb said. "Whether people want to admit it or not, I suspect the Tea Party crowd believes that the currency of whiteness has been devalued." iReport.com: Share your thoughts on race and politics
There's another wrinkle to the witch doctor controversy. Obama was mocked by some critics as the "magical negro" during the campaign because he was perceived to be a solve-all to nation's problems.
"This is an echo of the theme during the campaign when his opponents would ask 'Who is Barack Obama?" Cobb said.
"At that point, it was part of a somewhat cynical attempt to depict him as vaguely foreign and unknown," Cobb said. "But now that he has control over actual policies, those views appear to have hardened, metastasized into something more vitriolic.
"Caricature is part of politics, but racist stereotyping isn't."
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