Sunday, May 1, 2011

Obama's birth certificate, and the racist impulses behind Birtherism

This week President Obama released his long-form birth certificate, that proves that he was born in Hawaii. Not Kenya, not anywhere else.

So, thankfully, that will be the end of the "Birther" movement, and the deluded conspiracy theories that naturally flow out of it.

No? Oh.

The discussion amongst the birther crowd has simply shifted from: "He doesn't have an American birth certificate," to: "His birth certificate is fake".

Anyone seriously thought showing everyone the document would alleviate the constant speculation surrounding his birthplace, should perhaps reflect on the fact that Obama already satisfied the legal requirements for the Presidency over 2 years ago when he ran for the job, and that he has also previously released the short-form certificate. Neither have prevented a substantial proportion of Americans believing he was born elsewhere.

An example is the recent claim by former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo, that Obama deliberately withheld the certificate in order to make Republicans look foolish. A claim that, while it sounds outlandish, at least comes with it some acknowledgement that the birther crowd and the Republicans who associate themselves with it have indeed looked foolish.

The latest person to put the Obama birth issue in the headlines has been Donald Trump, who looks like he is going to try running for President, and is thus competing with Sarah Palin for the honour of "candidate whose Presidency would be most likely to convince the world that Americans are all morons".

The Donald has been beating the birther drum for a while now, claiming that the document was missing. Now that it's most definitely not missing, he's shifted focus to the President's academic records, claiming that Obama was apparently a terrible student in college, yet somehow got accepted into Columbia and Harvard Universities. Trump doesn't say who his source about Obama the bad student is, and it's not clear why it is suddenly relevant that Obama needs to release his academic records.

...unless of course you are someone who fervently wants to believe that there was a massive conspiracy to elect a Kenyan Muslim Socialist Nazi President.

One of the questions that has arisen is whether or not the whole birther issue is driven by racism. The Left will say yes, the Right will say no and complain about the Left's eagerness to play the race card.

Well, the Left is spot-on; right-wing figures keep the issue of his birthplace alive precisely to scare the public and capitalise on the lucrative xenophobic vote.This doesn't mean Trump must be racist against "the blacks" as he calls them, but he's definitely relying on racist attitudes to fuel his road to candidacy.

It must be stressed that the deep well of racism the Republicans are trying to tap into is not the obvious variety. It's the entrenched racism that people often don't know is there, or at least don't acknowledge is there. It's not the kind of racism that says, "I won't vote for Obama because he's a nigger." Rather, it's the sort of racism that says, "I won't vote for Obama because there's something about him I just don't like." (That certain something they don't like is that he's black and seems foreign, of course.)

Even Trump's latest academic angle seems like a racial dog-whistle. The veiled implication is that Obama (who is black, by the way) did not deserve to get into Ivy League schools. So despite him being voted by his peers as President of the Harvard Law Review and graduating magna cum laude, Trump says that something is fishy about that. Of course, George W Bush got into the Ivy League, but he was a rich white man. The implication is that as a black man who was not wealthy, Obama did not really belong in that esteemed strata of society, and must have only got there through affirmative action.

The political genius of this kind of attack is that it is not OVERTLY racist. Indeed, the same has been true of many of the right-wing talking points about the President - he's got a anti-colonialist mindset, he's a socialist, he's a Muslim, he's a Muslim sympathiser, his middle name is Hussein, he has a problem with white people, he wasn't born in America.

Those who keep these myths floating around are doing so in order to prey on conservative America's suspicions about the brown guy with the foreign-sounding name. Yet the racism behind these fears is hidden enough that those who have them don't see themselves as being racist. So when anyone on the Left points out that racism is at play, they are accused of "playing the race card". The general perception on the Right is that the Left play the race card as a way of silencing any debate they don't want, shaming right-wing opponents with the label of racist. Thus Obama is seen to be using this tactic to maintain his hold on power.

That's the brilliance of using thinly-veiled xenophobia as a political strategy, and why so many political parties around the world love using it. So many vehement Obama-haters spout arguments which are based in racism, without seeing it as racism. So when someone on the Left brings up racism, it's as if they brought it up out of the blue.

Try this analogy:

A: "Tell me, what foods do you really dislike?"
B: "A few things: I dislike lasagna, I dislike fondue, also quesadillas, pizza and saganaki.
A: "Well, it sounds like you have a problem with cheese."
B: "What? Who said anything about cheese? I have no problem with cheese, you brought it up. Why are you so fixated on cheese, anyway?"

If you oppose Obama, credit to you if you are opposing him strictly on his policies and character. Because I know that there are plenty of you out there. But there's not as many of you as you might think.

Seen this video? Obama has digs at Trump and the birthers at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Obama got jokes.


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