Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is upset with Mike Norman, owner of a Marietta, Ga., bar, for selling the shirts which show Curious George peeling a banana with "Obama in '08" printed beneath the image.
"Houghton Mifflin Harcourt did not nor would we ever authorize or approve this use of the Curious George character, which we find offensive and utterly out of keeping with the values Curious George represents," said Richard Blake, the company's spokesman. "We are monitoring the situation and weighing all of our options."
Norman, who began selling the shirts in late April, has said they are not meant to be racist. He said he thinks the Illinois senator and the character "look so much alike."
Bill Nigut, southeast regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said Norman is being disingenuous.
"He can pretend he doesn't understand what the message of that T-shirt is, but he knows full well that's an offensive and demeaning stereotype used to insult African-Americans," Nigut said. He called on citizens not to buy the T-shirts, but stopped short of calling for a boycott of Norman's business or denying him to speak out.
"His speech is protected, but that doesn't mean that it's appropriate and that doesn't mean it's not hateful," Nigut said.
On Tuesday, about a dozen people gathered outside the bar to object to the T-shirt. The protesters said the shirts are racist and they wanted Norman, to stop selling them.
Nigut said he was not surprised to hear that some in the community might have bought the shirt.
"To say that there are a few people in the community who are eager to have that ... I wouldn't deny that," Nigut said, adding that some could've purchased a shirt as a souvenir of the controversy. "But does it reflect what the vast majority of Cobb County residents believe in? I don't think that for a second."