Eat your heart out, Monica Lewinsky. Move over, Kenneth Starr. There’s a new group of political truth-seekers out there, and they just uncovered a bombshell that’s going to shock the world. Were you irate when Clinton lied about his infidelity? Or when Bush lied about the weapons of mass destruction? Well these minor scandals pale in comparison to The Greatest Political Conspiracy in the History of the World: President Obama is not a United States citizen!
A few brave fellow patriots are joining the venerable Ken Starr in the courageous struggle against lying, deceitful politicians. Thank goodness for Real Americans. They (uh, awkwardly) call themselves the “birthers,” and their ranks range from good ol’ normal folks like this lady in Delaware to high-ranking political leaders like California Republican Congressman John Campbell. Some outwardly question President Obama’s citizenship, while others admirably “just want to see these question put to rest.” Turns out, these inquisitive folks have uncovered President Obama’s true citizenship: He’s not American—he’s African.
Of course, these (incorrect) rumors have been around since the election. Snopes sufficiently debunked them, but folks are still clinging to the pervasive notion that there’s just something not right about this Obama guy. As Liz Cheney noted on Larry King Live Tuesday night—validating and legitimizing the birthers’ invalid and illegitimate claims—Americans are “fundamentally uncomfortable” with Barack Obama. He just doesn’t seem like one of “us.” He’s, well, he’s something other than us.
The process of “othering” minorities remains a fundamental component of our nation’s history. That it is so shocking for folks to associate a black man in power with American citizenship is not wholly surprising. Princeton scholar Mellissa Harris-Lacewell offered a fascinating discussion on this very topic after Obama’s election, detailing the innovative steps his campaign took to overcome racial cognitive dissonance. See, we’ve been so used to a certain style of person (read: white, male) in positions of power that our brains had difficulty making the shift toward accepting a different looking First Family. This cognitive shift—a significant racial barrier, to be sure—was integral to Obama’s success last November.
Yet some folks haven’t fully made that cognitive shift. They’re still pretty reticent to accept that a smart black guy can actually be an American, and, even worse, be their Commander in Chief. But it’s far too easy to condemn their racist ignorance without offering any critical analysis. In the social sciences, we delve into every possible explanation for the behaviors of poor, predominantly minority populations and communities. We untangle their social networks, carefully scrutinize their positions within the economy and polity, and go out of our way to talk to them personally in our research, often letting their own words drive our analysis.
Yet we rarely place that same critical eye on the lives of poor white folks—particularly poor racist white folks. We (correctly) note the lack of mainstream models of success in many urban neighborhoods. We talk about the role of social structure in shaping a group’s worldviews, but rarely apply that same analysis to folks outside the so-called ghetto. It’s unfortunate; in our knee jerk reactions to overt racism, we neglect comprehensive social research and, more importantly, comprehensive pursuits of social justice.
These folks—crazy as we may think they are—are expressing real feelings and real fear. Calling them foolish isn’t productive. Telling them they should know better is ineffective. And, apparently, showing them Obama’s actual birth certificate doesn’t do much either.
But that doesn’t mean we should write these folks off. In Black Picket Fences, sociologist Mary Pattillo writes about black gang members in a Chicago neighborhood. She discusses how these kids have multiple identities; they’re gang members, sure, but they’re also someone’s brother, son, or neighbor. As a white guy from upstate New York, these racist white folks—lawn jockeys and all—could easily be one of my neighbors, friends, or relatives. Well, maybe not one of my friends—but you get the idea. They’re human beings with little access to quality information, born to a world that has taught them to fear blacks.
Questioning their intelligence does little to expand their worldview and educate them on the complicated contours of race and racial inequality. No, Obama’s not a Kenyan citizen. And no, this isn’t the Greatest Political Conspiracy in the History of the World. Sure, these “birthers” are woefully misguided, and yes, their ideological underpinnings are exceedingly racist. But this is an opportunity—an opportunity to tackle racism and inequality head on through careful analysis and education. Who knows, it just might bring us closer to the ever-elusive "post racial America" everyone keeps talking about.