How Obama Outmaneuvered the Birthers
Yesterday's release by the White House of President Barack Obama's long-form birth certificate signals several dispiriting things about the state of our politics and the lingering poison of racism therein. As Baratunde Thurston so poignantly illustrated in his video (cited here by my colleague, Sarah Seltzer), that Obama felt the need to do so bears the echos of the days of poll taxes and literacy tests, when African Americans were made to go through the motions of passing an ever-rising bar to prove their worthiness to exercise rights that were already theirs on paper, only to be deprived one more time by an obstacle newly concocted once they had surmounted the last one.
Yet I think it wrong to view as a capitulation the president's decision to give the birthers, once and for all, exactly what they said they had wanted all along. This was no mere defensive move; this was a calculated offensive play.
No, the current occupant of the White House should not be held to a higher standard of proof than any who came before him, and the persistence of the birther myth -- that Obama was ineligible for the presidency by virtue of the unfounded allegation of a foreign birthplace -- surely indicates a rejection and smearing of Obama on account of his race. Yet the birther myth also served to obscure, in some ways, the racial nature of the birthers' claims. Since the argument was cast as one simply about his birthplace, it was a dispute about eligibility, not capability. Now, with the matter of the president's birthplace settled, the birther crowd has gone right where the Obama knew they would go next -- to an argument more obviously tied to the racial and racist assumptions of those who deem him unfit for office, that of his intelligence.
The racist has an unholy need to see himself, and those of his own race, as superior to members of the race he abhors. The particular form that much American racism takes is an assumption of the intellectual superiority of the white man* to the black. The presumed intellectual inferiority of the black man then justifies blocking his path to positions of authority.
By slapping his long-form birth certificate on the table just as he takes to the campaign trail, Obama is flushing out the racists into the light. They just can't seem to help themselves from taking the bait. Deprived of their birthplace conspiracy, their automatic default is to question the president's intelligence, and to challenge his credentials as a learned man.
These elements of the birther/racist yarn about Obama have always existed. That's what the teleprompter jokes have been about all along. Certain right-wingers pretend that Obama relies on a teleprompter more than other presidents have (he does not), and paint a picture of him as a sort of idiot savant with a preternatural talent for reading words written for him by others (presumably white men), delivered with the oratorical flare that, you know, those people have a knack for. It's not unlike the tropes created about jazz musicians -- that they ply an amazingly complex art form through some channel that bypasses the brain, that they're actually simple people who don't know how to read music, and on and on. Ye olde magic Negro story...
Now that demands are being made by such as Donald Trump and Patrick J. Buchanan for the president's college transcripts, it becomes clearer to those don't think of themselves as racially prejudiced -- but who were thrown by the exotic nature of the president's name and lineage -- that there's more afoot here than settling the matter of where he was born.
America abounds in racial prejudice, but Americans do not like to think of themselves as racist. When anti-black racism takes an irrefutable form, white Americans become uncomfortable. However much it achieves the same end results, the modern form of garden-variety racial prejudice (as opposed to hard-core racism), I believe, is quite an evolved permutation of the racism that was used to justify slavery in the nation's early days. Racial separatism as it exists today, I believe, is a way for white people to look away from the nation's ugly history of the abuse of African Americans.
You see, black people know what white people have done to them. They hold the history we want so much to forget. When we whites live and work amongst ourselves, we need not confront that history. When we are in the presence of black people, we can't avoid it. We know that they know.
"I think he's affirmative action all the way!" Pat Buchanan said of Obama's educational achievements on MSNBC's "Harball." While Buchanan surely has his fans -- and there are no shortage of Americans, alas, who are prepared to believe that claim -- his uncouthness in stating his prejudice without qualification or apology draws a collective wince from those who like to think themselves more polite. And Trump, of course, in his "I'm so proud of myself" speech, automatically defaulted to questioning Obama's grades. While this may play well to a segment of the GOP base, it will not gain the kind of traction among the general public that the birther myth acquired. It's just too obvious.
Plenty are the wags who today complain that Obama released his long-form birth certificate too late, thinking it was an attempt to assuage the believers in the myth. It was not. It is a chess move designed to expose the birthers and their fellow travelers for what they are; now, on the campaign trail, and on a very troubled landscape, Obama gets to say, "See what I'm up against? Is this who we want to be?"
Obama has taken a great deal of criticism -- much of it warranted -- for not fighting hard enough in negotiations with congressional leaders. But when he does choose to fight, this is how he does it -- by using existing dynamics to prove his point, by using his opponent's weight against him or her. (We see evidence of this, too, in his choice of Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, as his hand-picked opponent in recent speeches.)
And when Obama chooses to fight, he is steely-eyed and formidable. That birth certificate hitting the table? Consider it a gauntlet.
* I am using male pronouns in this discussion, because the birther myth was hatched by white men -- although several women have helped to promote it -- and the president is a man. This particular situation is primarily about the racial dynamic between American men, which is not to say that women are not party to similar dynamics.