Human Rights

Racism Is the Prime Cause for Debunked Obama Birth Certificate Conspiracy Theory

The "birther" conspiracy has been utterly debunked, yet more GOP establishment figures have embraced the transparently racist cause.

By now, everyone has heard of the "birthers," that rabid crop of self-appointed patriots who insist that Barack Hussein Obama is not a legitimate president because he is not really an American citizen.

What was once a nasty little rumor in the early days of the presidential race has since evolved into a full-blown conspiracy theory whose proponents, though "viewed as irrelevant by the White House, and as embarrassing by much of the Republican Party," in the words of Politico's Ben Smith, nonetheless enjoy increasingly high-profilepolitical support, and media coverage "9/11 truthers" could only dream of.

The birthers' conspiracy theory -- which holds that Obama was born in Kenya, despite all evidence to the contrary -- has long been debunked. The Obama camp released a copy of his birth certificate as early as June 2008, although that only seemed to fan the flames.

Yet, last week the "birthers" became big news again, after a video emerged showing Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., confronted at a town hall meeting by a woman who angrily accused him of being complicit in the coverup of Obama's true origins. Castle, who is commonly labeled a "moderate Republican" -- and whose subsequent remark would earn him the label "RINO American Traitor" in some corners of the Internet -- seemed genuinely perplexed.

"Well I don't know what comment that invites," he said, to a chorus of boos. "If you're referring to the president, then he is a citizen of the United States."

The video of Castle's unfortunate run-in with the birthers hit YouTube and went viral. MSNBC put the clip on heavy rotation; "Hardball" host Chris Matthews devoted multiple segments to the topic; On CNN and on his radio show, sneering nativist Lou Dobbs fanned the flames with such remarks as, "What is the deal here? I'm starting to think we have … a document issue," and on Larry King, Dick Cheney's increasingly vocal daughter, Liz, shared her highly unempirical view that "one of the reasons you see people so concerned about this" is that "people are uncomfortable with having for the first time ever … a president who seems so reluctant to defend the nation overseas."

By midweek, Jon Stewart had lampooned the birthers and their media allies on Comedy Central's Daily Show, a move that, given his recent distinction as the new "most trusted man in news," might have spelled the death of the birthers.

Of course, it hasn't.

This week alone, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., was quoted as saying they may "have a point," while the fourth-highest-ranking member of the House, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said she'd "like to see the documents."

Meanwhile, an attempt by Hawaii Democrat Rep. Neil Abercrombie to pass a resolution to commemorate his state's 50th anniversary (while also proclaiming the state as President Obama’s birthplace) was temporarily blocked by Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann on Monday, only to pass a few hours later.

By now it seems everyone has put in their two cents (and then some) about the birthers. But while most media coverage has treated them as incurable wackjobs pushing a conspiracy theory to be classified alongside the moon landing "hoax" (40 years old last week!) and the (considerably larger) group of Americans who believe 9/11 was an inside job, the "truth" of Obama's birth seems to fall into a slightly different category.

Like all conspiracy theories, it springs from the fertile soil of collective denial. Unlike all conspiracy theories, it thrives on a deep-rooted, racist belief: that a black man with a foreign name could never have won the presidency in the United States through anything other than trickery, deception or fraud.

"If Barack Obama was an Irish American or a Polish American or a German American, there would be no discussion anywhere in this country about his citizenship," radio host E. Steven Collins told Chris Matthews on Thursday, in response to his fellow guest, deranged right-winger and Nixon Watergate operative, G. Gordon Liddy, whose own attempt to defend the birthers should mark a low point, even for his career. "This is because many people in this nation cannot still accept the fact that a brilliant African American is the commander-in-chief."

Tim Wise, author of Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, puts this in perspective: "When [Arnold] Schwarzenegger became governor, there were people who were saying, 'Hey we should amend the Constitution to allow people who are naturalized citizens to maybe run for president.'

"Although that didn't go anywhere -- and my guess is that the 'birthers' who are doing this crap with Obama probably wouldn't have been real keen on that idea -- notice that there was no groundswell of anger and opposition."

It's the Racism, Stupid!

Perhaps it is too obvious to say that the birthers' insistence on Obama's illegitimacy is based on racism. Even so, why isn't this collective racism at the heart of the "debate"?

"That's one of the problems with this so-called postracial era that we're in," says Wise. "White folks in particular -- and some folks of color -- are very quick to avoid that angle at all costs, lest they be accused of somehow being the ones who are somehow racist in some way or who are thinking in racial terms."

After all, Americans have seen what happens when people of color dare to suggest that the country is anything but perfect: they are ruthlessly attacked.

Take the rage over Michelle Obama's remark during the presidential campaign that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country," which was treated as unpatriotic hate speech. Or the controversy prompted by Eric Holder's remark that we are a "nation of cowards" when it comes to race.

Or, more recently, the ugly backlash against Obama's (considerably mild) remark that a judge should have a capacity for "empathy" and an understanding of "people's hopes and struggles."

"Usually that's a code word for an activist judge," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week, a line that became a rallying cry against Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. ("I will not vote for, and no senator should vote for, an individual nominated by any president who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their personal background, gender, prejudices or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of or against parties before the court," GOP Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions proclaimed at the confirmation hearing.)

In the end, the obsessive harping over Sotomayor's "wise Latina" remark and right-wing accusations that she is a "reverse racist" because of her ruling in Ricci v. DeStefano (otherwise known as the Connecticut firefighters case) hijacked her confirmation hearing.

In fact, no sooner was the latest "birther" story gaining ground last week than we saw this same phenomenon on full display with a new controversy: The arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

In an unguarded moment, Obama dared to say what might have seemed pretty obvious to even the most superficially race-conscious: the Cambridge police, "acted stupidly" by handcuffing Gates in his own home, particularly given the "long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately."

Obama's comment became national news; the networks seized on it, the blogosphere went wild, and by Friday afternoon, Obama had backtracked, issued a qualified apology, and invited the arresting officer, Sgt. Jim Crowley, to the White House for a beer.

"There's a bizarre tendency, every time a person of color criticizes white folks -- or just white racism -- to say 'that's racism,' " says Wise. "So, by that logic, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is a racist, Barack Obama is a racist, Sonia Sotomayor is a racist. … Meanwhile, people like Pat Buchanan, who say Sonia Sotomayor is unqualified or that white people built the country and are basically entitled to 100 percent of everything -- they're not racist."

The attacks on Sotomayor, the hysteria over Obama's criticism of the Cambridge police, and the persistent rumors about Obama's origins seem symptomatic of something larger, something Wise believes is "the culmination of centuries of ingrained privilege and hegemonic control."

Even it you are not yourself in a position of power, "… if you've gotten used to seeing people who look like you in almost every position of authority," he says, "to then have to wake up every day and see a man of color basically running the country … is psychologically debilitating to white folks who all their lives weren't necessarily bigots or racists in any overt sense, but had simply gotten complacent with the way things were. They had internalized these notions of entitlement and superiority."

Given how deep such notions of entitlement and superiority can run, it’s hard to know to what degree the birthers are fully conscious of the racist impulses behind their crazy allegations -- or whether they are in such denial that they actually believe their own bullshit.

White Hegemony Challenged

To explain the devastating effect of Obama's presidency on those ordinary Americans who were quite happy with their white privilege, thank you, Wise quotes W.E.B. DuBois's concept of "the psychological wage of whiteness."

"A lot of white folks don't have much. They're struggling, they're hurting, but they've been able to content themselves with the idea that at least they're not black," Wise says. "So they get this psychological wage from their whiteness. The problem is, that's a wage which is diminishing in value. If you say to yourself, 'Well I may not have much, but at least I'm not black,' and then you look around and say, 'Shit, black is the new president!' -- now the value of your psychological wage is reduced in real dollar terms. Now you've got nothing."

In Wise's view: "The people who latch on to the birther stuff (working-class and struggling middle-class whites) aren't any more racist than elite white folks, but their way of expressing it is so much more raw and visceral, because: a) they may not have the filter that you get when you're elite (you sort of know when to check yourself), but also because they're the ones who feel the most threat."

Of course, white elites have their own fears over the erosion of white hegemony -- and not just televised bigots like Buchanan. For a real measure of the panic over their own supremacy, a prime example is the growing number of elected officials who are pandering to -- and emboldening -- the birthers, not just by paying them lip service, but actually introducing legislation based on their outlandish claims.

This past February, Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., introduced a bill that would require presidential candidates to provide a copy of his or her birth certificate. (Posey has been widely quoted as saying he "can't swear on a stack of Bibles whether [Obama's] a citizen or not.")

David Weigel recently wrote in the Washington Independent, "While Posey initially said that he disbelieved conspiracy theories about the president's birth, he told the host of an Internet radio show that he'd discussed the possibility of Obama being removed from office over 'the eligibility issue' with 'high-ranking members of our Judiciary Committee.' "

According to Weigel, who has covered the birthers extensively, "as of July 15, nine fellow Republican members of Congress were backing the bill."

"While Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, has said that he supports the bill because he didn't know whether Obama was a citizen, other sponsors say that they weighed in to pour cold water on the conspiracy theories."

One such sponsor is Rep. John Campbell, a California Republican, who parroted this dubious claim in an interview with Chris Matthews on July 21.

"Wouldn't you like to put all this to rest?" Campbell asked. "That's what this proposal is about." ("Nice try," Matthews responded.)

Matthews: No, no. You are feeding the wacko wing of your party. Do you believe that Barack Obama is a legitimate native-born American or not?
Campbell: That is not what this bill is about, Chris.
Matthews: No, what do you believe?
CAMPBELL: As far as I know, yes, OK?
Matthews: As far as you know?
CAMPBELL: Yes.

Campbell and his ilk may be an embarrassment to more "respectable" and powerful members of the Republican party. But they have more in common than they would like to admit.

"It appears to me that the Republican party, because of the choices it has made -- going back 40 years or more -- on policy positions have guaranteed that they were destined to be, at the end of the day, the white nationalist party," says Wise.

When "your budget-cut philosophy is about cutting programs that are perceived as helping 'those people', your attacks on affirmative action are very clear, your attacks on busing are very clear, all your law-and-order stuff … when you sow those seeds for several decades, you ought not be surprised when a whole crop of people who have grown up with that -- that's what they're about now."

Take the new chairwoman of the Young Republicans -- a 38-year-old named Audra Shay. She recently came under fire when she was caught cosigning a racist Facebook post that read "Obama Bin Lauden [sic] is the new terrorist … Muslim is on there side [sic] … need to take this country back from all of these mad coons … and illegals."

Shay's reply: "You tell em Eric! lol."

From Barack the Magic Negro; to e-mails depicting watermelons in front of the White House, to, most recently, a conservative activist's circulation of an image of Obama as a witch doctor, incidents like these are as ubiquitous now as they were during the presidential campaign.

And the people yelling "terrorist" at Sarah Palin rallies or those informing John McCain that Obama is "an Arab" have not gone away. Mainstream Republicans who wish to look respectable may want to distance themselves from this "lunatic fringe," but as representatives of a party largely built on structural racism, this is a very real part of their base.

In order for the GOP to survive, says Wise, Republicans are going to have to somehow bring in more minorities -- a task that would require a fundamental revamping of the Republican identity and agenda -- or "they're gonna have to start making a lot of babies."

"I don't think the Republican party ever thought they could get a lot of black folks," Wise says. "But they thought they could get Latinos. And the reason they thought so was because of this ridiculous and fundamentally racist naivete that said, 'Well, Latinos are family-oriented so they'll be against abortion.' If you don't think white folks are that one-dimensional, how can you think Latinos are so one-dimensional? Well of course you can -- if you're a racist."

For a number of people, the Sotomayor confirmation hearings were a sign that the Republicans are no longer particularly set on attracting "the Latino vote," something that might make the Pat Buchanans in the party smile, but which will ultimately prove costly for the GOP as a whole. As the country's demographics evolve, the party that brought us the Willie Horton ads in the 1980s will have to evolve, too. And so will white Americans who continue to insist on blaming their problems on people of color.

"The birther stuff to me is part of the same narcissistic breakdown that is at the heart of every e-mail I get from a college kid or that college kid's parents who say, 'I couldn't get enough financial aid because they're giving all the scholarships to black people,'" says Wise. "This narcissism is especially evident when you watch such hateful right-wing media buffoons as Rush Limbaugh -- who supports the birthers -- and "who are just becoming totally unglued."

"On the one hand it's funny," says Wise. "On the other hand it's really frightening, because people, when they're in that sort of meltdown mode don't make good decisions and do really crazy things."

Take James W. Von Brunn, the white supremacist -- and a "birther" -- who shot and killed a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in June.

It would be pushing it to see the birthers phenomenon as a a sign that white hegemony is nearing its last throes. However, "one really positive thing about Obama's presidency in regards to race" says Wise, is that "its created this nuttiness on the part of a lot white folks who have always been thinking this stuff but they just haven't been as bold with it."

"At some point, it will become increasingly difficult for those who like to deny racism as a problem to continue completely burying their heads."

"At some point, people will have to say, maybe black folks aren't the crazy ones. Maybe it's not the folks of color who have lost their minds. Maybe it's you."

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. http://twitter.com/LilianaSegura
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