Frank Rich’s column from Saturday’s New York Times is too good to go unnoticed here at Social Science Lite. Rich brilliantly tackles the “birthers” (proponents of The Greatest Political Conspiracy in the History of the World*), placing their rhetoric within our so-called “national conversation on race:”
“Obama’s election, far from alleviating paranoia in the white fringe, has only compounded it. There is no purer expression of this animus than to claim that Obama is literally not an American — or, as Sarah Palin would have it, not a “real American.” The birth-certificate canard is just the latest version of those campaign-year attempts to strip Obama of his American identity with faux controversies over flag pins, the Pledge of Allegiance and his middle name. Last summer, Cokie Roberts of ABC News even faulted him for taking a vacation in his home state of Hawaii, which she described as a “foreign, exotic place,” in contrast to her proposed choice of Myrtle Beach, S.C., in the real America of Dixie.
One of the loudest birther enablers is not at Fox but CNN: Lou Dobbs, who was heretofore best known for trying to link immigrants, especially Hispanics, to civic havoc. Dobbs is one-stop shopping for the excesses of this seismic period of racial transition. And he is following a traditional, if toxic, American playbook. The escalating white fear of newly empowered ethnic groups and blacks is a naked replay of more than a century ago, when large waves of immigration and the northern migration of emancipated blacks, coupled with a tumultuous modernization of the American work force, unleashed a similar storm of racial and nativist panic.”
Racial panic over minority invasions and challenges to white hegemony is nothing new; the history of “othering” minorities is a long and storied one, with its organizational zenith going as far back as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. There, white Americans celebrated the supposed supremacy of American culture, collectively embracing whiteness as they mocked and ridiculed “savage” foreign societies. White Americans defined their unstable racial identity in opposition to an ill-defined, uncivilized racial “other.” At the Chicago World’s Fair, whiteness, nationalism and modernity were all intertwined: to be intellectually superior, patriotic, and American was to be white; to be white was to be intellectually superior, patriotic, and American. Sounds familiar, right?
This collective re-drawing of racial boundaries has been a common American practice during times of economic distress and demographic change. Take the influx of African-Americans into manufacturing jobs during the 1930s and 40s. This onslaught of blacks into Northern industrial cities during the Second Great Migration precipitated violent resistance in formerly all-white neighborhoods and workplaces. In more recent decades, the growing Hispanic population in America has spawned a pervasive anti-immigrant ethos with blatantly racist overtones. In each instance, white Americans enacted social, political, and economic structures—such as restrictive covenants, redlining, and political gerrymandering—to limit upward mobility when people of color challenged their hegemonic power.
So-called “birthers”—questioning President Obama’s country of birth—are only the latest in a long line of white Americans dead-set on “othering” minority populations. There's just no way this Obama guy is one of us. This "othering" of President Obama is exactly where we need to focus our discussions of race in America—not on individualized instances of racial discrimination, but on historical continuities and the institutionalization of racial animus. Our “national conversation on race” won’t happen over beers, but through careful historical analyses of racial identity formation and the hoarding of economic and political resources.
The politics of “othering” has long been a dominant facet of public discourse. No “national conversation on race” is going to do much if we don’t address this core aspect of American political identity.
* I'm officially coining "The Greatest Political Conspiracy in the History of the World" as my new term for the "birther" claims.