The Ticket

Birtherist response highlights racial undertones of ‘debate’

The Ticket

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During the 2008 campaign, questions about John McCain's birth in the Panama Canal Zone on a U.S. military base prompted some to ask whether McCain was eligible to be president, since the Constitution stipulates that anyone not born in the United States is not eligible to be president.

Amid a flurry of news reports, McCain's own campaign announced in February 2008 that it was conducting an investigation. When a bipartisan pair of lawyers announced the following month that McCain was indeed eligible, the issue virtually died--apart from a Senate resolution that pretty much laid the question to rest by attesting to the facts surrounding McCain's birth and citizenship.

But the winner of the 2008 election, Barack Obama, has faced a relentless campaign questioning his U.S. citizenship--and thereby the legitimacy of his presidency--that has disregarded the facts.

Questions regarding Obama's birth certificate have persisted for more than two years, as the president noted Wednesday at a press conference announcing the release of his long-form birth certificate. A vast array of evidence attests to Obama's citizenship--including a certificate of live birth, signed affidavits from people who viewed Obama's long-form birth certificate, confirmation by Hawaiian officials, and independent investigations by news outlets. Nevertheless, "this thing just keeps going" as Obama said this morning. Even after the White House released the long-form certificate of Obama's birth, birther leader Orly Taitz—who has filed unsuccessful lawsuits seeking to obtain access to Obama's birth certificate—sought to cast doubt on the document's authenticity, suggesting that in 1961, Hawaiian officials would have classified Obama as "Negro" rather than using designation "African," which suggests, in her view, a more contemporary concern for "political correctness."

So what's fueling the dogged questioning of Obama's origins? Many critics of the birther movement say its core tenets--and its stubborn resistance to evidence disproving those beliefs--can be traced to racial hostilities. The fundamental birtherist conviction, these critics say, is that an African-American can't have legitimately won the presidency--and that his elevation to power therefore has to be the result of an elaborate subterfuge.

"There is a real deep-seated and vicious racism at work here in terms of trying to de-legitimate the president," Peniel Joseph, a professor of history at Tufts University, told The Ticket.

"This is more than just a conspiracy," Joseph added. "I think this is fundamentally connected to a conception of white supremacist democracy in this country."

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. in early April called for the connection to be publicly drawn between birthers and racism: "So it is time to call this birther nonsense what it is--not just claptrap, but profoundly racist claptrap."

And columnist Michael Tomasky wrote for The Guardian Wednesday that the birther conspiracy "had to be the only explanation for how this black man got to the White House." He added: "And if you think race isn't what this is about at its core, ask yourself if there would even be a birther conspiracy if Barack Obama were white and named Bart Oberstar. If you think there would be, you are delusional."

In a similar vein, Rev. Jesse Jackson told Politico yesterday that Donald Trump's campaign to get Obama to release his birth certificate is deeply rooted in race.

"Any discussion of [Obama's] birthplace is a code word," Jackson said. "It calls upon ancient racial fears." Jackson later added that, in his view, Trump "is now tapping into code-word fears that go far beyond a rational discourse."

Birthers emphatically deny such criticism. But it's difficult to apprehend the ongoing resistance to proof of Obama's citizenship without crediting racial fear as a significant factor. At first, after all, many adherents of birtherism argued that the administration fueled speculation by failing to release the long-form version of Obama's birth certificate, but now that this version has been released to the public, the call continues to go out for other kinds of information about Obama's past to be released--a level of scrutiny that neither McCain nor Obama's 43 predecessors in the Oval Office were expected to face.

Trump, who has railed against Obama as he floats himself as a presidential contender, on Wednesday at a press conference in New Hampshire called for Obama to release his academic transcripts:

The word is, according to what I've read, that he was a terrible student when he went to Occidental. He then gets to Columbia. He then gets to Harvard. I heard at Columbia he wasn't a very good student. He then gets to Harvard. How do you get into Harvard if you're not a good student. Maybe that's right or maybe that's wrong. But I don't know why he doesn't release his records. Why doesn't he release his Occidental records?

Trump and others have accused Obama of not authoring his memoir, while many Obama detractors continue to argue he is secretly Muslim. Both Jackson and Joseph noted that never before has a sitting president's nationality been questioned.

Meanwhile, an eye-opening recent study from the University of Delaware appears to confirm that race-minded detractors of Obama view him as "less American"--as Dan Vergano writes for USA Today.

The study, which surveyed blacks and whites on their opinions of Obama compared to Vice President Joe Biden, found that whites classified as "higher prejudice-predicted Whites" viewed Obama as "less American"--a view that, in turn, resulted in lower evaluations of the president's performance.

"Finally, many in the media have speculated that current criticisms of Obama are a result of his race, rather than his agenda. We believe that the current results are an empirical demonstration that this is sadly the case," the study concluded in its analysis. "As the United States approaches important decisions regarding issues such as economic reform, health care, and overseas military interventions, the intrusion of racial attitudes in the evaluation of political leaders' performance is ironically inconsistent with what many believe to be 'American.' "

Two separate national polls conducted this spring found that about half of Republicans don't believe Obama was born in the United States.

But Democrats and Republicans alike say that "birther" talk will be a political liability for whoever propagates the discussion.

"I don't think it's an issue that moves voters," Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus told reporters Tuesday. "It's an issue in my opinion that I don't personally get too excited about, because I think the more important question is what's going on in this country in regards to jobs, to debt, and the deficit and spending. Those are the things that people are worried about. People aren't worried about these other issues."

(Photo of Obama: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Correction 11:55am EST: An earlier version of this story misquoted Dr. Peniel Joseph.

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