For the second time in two weeks, a doctored image of President Barack Obama has stirred a political and racial row in the Tampa Bay area.
First it was an image of Obama appearing as a witch doctor e-mailed by a prominent Pinellas doctor and conservative activist, David McKalip. The uproar quickly led to McKalip's resignation in July as president-elect of the Pinellas County Medical Association.
Now, it's an image of Obama looking like Batman's arch-villain the Joker in the movie The Dark Knight — complete with white face and creepy red lips — that popped up on a Pinellas GOP Facebook page.
State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, promptly denounced the image as hurtful and inflammatory, while Pinellas Republican leaders stressed they had nothing to do with the social networking site and disapproved of that image.
"If there had never been a period of time in this country when African-Americans in order to be funny played Stepin Fetchit-type roles in greasepaint and members of the majority population had not used such caricatures to make a people feel inferior or as buffoons, then maybe some folks could look at it for some pure artistic humor," Rouson said.
But where some people saw a picture of a black leader put in white face, others merely saw a public figure looking like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.
"I see it as the Joker, and being that I see it as the Joker I will have to say that it's fair game,'' said Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP. "Barack is a big boy. He's going to have to handle his criticism, too. But if it's racist, there should be an outcry against it."
An unknown artist created the Joker image of Obama on a poster with the word "socialism." It reportedly started appearing around Los Angeles roadways in recent months, then spread to other cities. Once it hit the Drudge Report this week, it spread far and wide, including to a Facebook page titled "Pinellas County Republican Party."
Pinellas Republican leaders said the page is not connected to the party and they have nothing to do with it.
"We do not condone anything like that," treasurer Chet Renfrow said. "I don't think it has anything to do with race at all. … But I just have a problem with making the president into a caricature. I don't like it when they did it to Bush, and I don't like it now."
Indeed, Vanity Fair in July 2008 published a similarly sinister illustration of George W. Bush as the Joker.
"Because of the president being who he is, being an African-American, it becomes a little more offensive," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Tom Scott. "It's disrespectful, inflammatory and insulting."
The incident underscored the new and uncertain territory of criticizing or satirizing an African-American president. Perceptions can vary widely.
"The only thing missing is a noose," LA Weekly said in denouncing the Obama Joker poster.
"There's nothing racist about depicting Obama as a famous movie character. The poster equates him to a famous clown which had large red lips. If you think this is racist, I guess a black man can never dress up as a clown,'' said a blogger on RightPundits.com.
Rouson said the image would have been less offensive if it had shown Obama being burned in effigy, the way Presidents Clinton or Bush were at times. When asked if that wouldn't look like a lynching, though, Rouson agreed it probably would be at least as inflammatory.
"There is so much pride in our President Obama and our election and what he stood for, maybe we are being very sensitive about it,'' Rouson said. "I wish that people would attack policies rather than politicians."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]