Michelle Obama racism row—what’s it based on?

Photo WikipediaMichelle Obama


This recent BBC News header1 was typical of the news headlines worldwide on the story:

Michelle Obama racist image sparks Google apology

Apparently, the image referred to was a photograph of Mrs Obama that had been manipulated to give her the facial features of a monkey. I say “apparently”, because the mock-up photo no longer appears as the #1 ranking on Google’s list of image search results for “Michelle Obama”.2

It is very clear however from the news reports of the “race row”3 that in the last days that the picture was Google-accessible, it stirred many people. Such was the furore, Google executives issued an apology, even though they themselves were not responsible for the photo.

“We apologize if you’ve had an upsetting experience using Google,” the company said.

Some members of the public however, while critical of the photo, jumped to Google’s defence. “It’s disgustingly racist and very offensive,” said Colin Walker of Wales, UK, “but it’s not Google’s job to decide what is acceptable.”1

Similarly, “I do not think Google should censor its results,” wrote Jonathan C., on a BBC blog inviting public comment.4

“It is an offensive racist image, but it does remind us that there are offensive racist people out there too.”

Image WikipediaDarwin as an ape
This caricature of Darwin with an ape-like body was typical of many following the publication of his The Descent of Man in 1871. (In Origin of Species, which was first published in 1859, Darwin had been careful to avoid directly addressing the issue of where humans fit into his evolutionary scenario.)

Author of The Google Story, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist David Vise, also sprang to Google’s defence. He explained that the internet giant’s search engine’s results get to the top based on popularity, not because of any prejudicial ranking by Google staff. “If Google got a call from the White House telling them it’s against the law to have an offensive image of this kind which portrays the first lady in a racist manner as a monkey or an ape,” he added, “then they would be obliged to take it down and I’m sure they would do so immediately.”1,5

However, it seems there’s a key part of the story that has been left unreported—at least, in the numerous mainstream media reports. What’s missing is an explanation of why likening America’s First Lady to an ape or monkey is considered “racist”.

After all, when the previous president of the United States, George W. Bush, was likened to a chimpanzee on various websites,6,7 the mockery was never referred to as being “racist” in nature. “Offensive”, yes—no doubt as offensive as portraying Mrs Obama in that manner—but racist? No, I’ve never heard anyone describing such a portrayal of ex-President Bush as “racist”.

Similarly with Charles Darwin—magazine cartoonists in the 1800s lampooned him by drawing the famous author of Origin of Species as an ape (e.g. the illustration at right), but no-one ever referred to those images as racist.8

Incredibly, Darwin is drawn as an ape on the front cover of the pro-evolutionist 2008 book edited by Jonathan Silvertown, 99% Ape—How evolution adds up, The Natural History Museum, London, UK, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. This portrayal is evidently seen as being neither racist nor offensive. (Incidentally, the ‘99% Ape’ claim is bogus—see Greater than 98% Chimp Human DNA similarity—Not any more)
Incredibly, Darwin is drawn as an ape on the front cover of the pro-evolutionist 2008 book edited by Jonathan Silvertown, 99% Ape—How evolution adds up, The Natural History Museum, London, UK, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. This portrayal is evidently seen as being neither racist nor offensive. (Incidentally, the ‘99% Ape’ claim is bogus—see Greater than 98% Chimp/Human DNA similarity? Not any more.)

And even today, when Darwin is drawn as an ape by his supporters (see book cover at left), not only is it not considered racist, it’s not even considered offensive!

So what is going on here? Some of the Mrs Obama photo bloggers have tried to dig a little deeper on this issue than the mainstream media reporters apparently dared to. For example, “TJ”, of Doncaster, UK, wrote:

“Actually the definition of racist is ‘discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race’ or ‘the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races’. Therefore if a person of any other race than white made the pictures of Bush or Darwin as a monkey—this would be racist.”3

But another blogger, a Mr Singh of Southampton, UK, disagreed:

“No the term becomes racist when images of monkeys are associated with Black Africans in a highly offensive manner.”3

Ah, now we’re getting closer to the mark. When “white”9 people are likened to monkeys and apes, it’s not racist, but to equate “black” people with monkeys and apes is racist.

And why should that be? To answer that, we can look to Darwin himself. Because it was his ideas that led to him being mockingly drawn as an ape—it seems he was the first man ever to be thus portrayed—and it is his ideas which fuel ‘monkey’ jibes towards black people today. (See It’s not cricket and Do monkeys play football?) It’s Darwin’s popularizing of evolutionary ideas which explains why ape/monkey portrayals of non-Europeans are considered ‘racist’.

Monkeys black, humans white

Darwin clearly suggested that some people are “more evolved” than others. In that context, it was easy for people of European ancestry to forget that western achievements in science, literature, music, government institutions, etc., arose in large part out of the energizing freedom, mutual trust, and call-to-fruitfulness ideals provided by a biblical worldview. Instead, many people of British and European ancestry imagined that their ‘evolutionarily advanced’ societies reflected their superiority over other “races”—especially black “races”.

Thus the beguiling popular drawings showing an evolutionary transition from dark monkey/ape to white human became increasingly the popular perception/view. So today, because evolution is presumed to be true, likening a black person to an ape or monkey is construed as ‘racist’, i.e. demeaning black people relative to whites.

Image WikipediaDarwin as a monkey
Charles Darwin was drawn as a monkey on the cover of La Petite Lune, a Parisian satirical magazine published in the 1880s.

In other words, when the media reports that monkey-like mock-up photos of Michelle Obama are racist, they’re tacitly highlighting society’s long-held view, fuelled by evolution, that blacks are less evolved than whites. Of course the mainstream media don’t dare put it so bluntly—it’s simply assumed.

This is a classic example of society reaping the consequences (e.g. racism) of what it has sown (evolutionary teaching). Many in authority, it seems, have accepted, if not overtly promoted, the teaching of an evolutionary worldview, yet are unwilling to accept its consequences. And, amazing though it might seem to black people worldwide, Mrs Obama’s own husband has in fact been an outspoken advocate for the teaching of evolution.10

So, in saying that evolution is true, what is Barack Hussein Obama, President of the United States of America and arguably leader of the free world, really saying about his wife’s ancestry?

Maybe President Obama, rather than Google executives, should be the one issuing an apology to internet users worldwide.

And his advisers would do well to advise the President that the only effective solution to combating racism is to actively teach creation, not evolution—and so return to a biblical worldview. Man was made in the image of God, not from any ape or monkey. No descendant of apelike creatures ever aspired to become US President, let alone was elected—regardless of President Obama’s opinion to the contrary.

Published: 8 December 2009


  1. BBC News, Michelle Obama racist image sparks Google apology, news.bbc.co.uk, 25 November 2009. Return to text.
  2. So, at the time of writing, we’ve not been able to access or view the doctored photo. Return to text.
  3. ABC News Online, Michelle Obama image in Google race row, abc.net.au, 26 November 2009. Return to text.
  4. BBC News forums—Should Google remove the racist Obama image?, newsforums.bbc.co.uk, 27 November 2009. Return to text.
  5. Martin Asser, BBC search engine specialist explained, “The cause is Google’s system of algorithmic analysis, which, without human intervention, ranks sites according to things like the number of links pointing there and the amount of activity at the site. The shocking doctored image of Mrs Obama must have immediately created a flurry of interest—mainly negative—and that sent the image shooting up Google’s rankings.” Ref. 1. Return to text.
  6. George W. Bush or Chimpanzee?, bushorchimp.com, last accessed 17 May 2005. Return to text.
  7. Political Humor, politicalhumor.about.com, last accessed 17 May 2005. Return to text.
  8. Browne, J., Darwin in Caricature: A Study in the Popularisation and Dissemination of Evolution, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 145(4):496–509, 2001. Return to text.
  9. We’ve used the quote marks around terms like “white” and “black” here to highlight the fact that in reality, their skin colouring is neither. They are really just different shades of brown owing to differing quantities of the same brown-black pigment, melanin. (People with less melanin tend to have a pinkish tinge, as having less of the “sunscreen” melanin means that the redness of the blood in small vessels makes a more visible contribution to overall skin colouration.) Return to text.
  10. When Mr Obama was asked by a journalist, “What’s your attitude regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools?”, he gave this answer: “I’m a Christian, and I believe in parents being able to provide children with religious instruction without interference from the state. But I also believe our schools are there to teach worldly knowledge and science. I believe in evolution, and I believe there’s a difference between science and faith. That doesn’t make faith any less important than science. It just means they’re two different things. And I think it’s a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don’t hold up to scientific inquiry.” He made it clear that he denies even intelligent design theories, let alone biblical creation. (blogs.discovermagazine.com, Obama on Evolution, Discover magazine, last accessed 3 December 2009. Return to text.