Obama’s Citizenship & Race: Separated at Birth?

It never ceases to amaze me how eager some white liberals are to divorce race from political analysis when it comes to Obama. Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler (who seems to have settled nicely into his blogospheric role as the curmudgeonly Luddite uncle who refuses to replace his black and white TV with a flat-screen plasma because, goddammit, a 10″ Zenith was good enough for Al Gore back in college) has been relentless in his contention that wingnut animus towards the 2nd blackest president ever is simply par for the course when you’re a Dem. Even Birtherism is merely a burden that anyone with a ‘D’ following their name must bear.

Brendan Nyhan approvingly quotes:

Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler objects to the liberal conventional wisdom that, as the New York Times put it, “It is inconceivable that this campaign [birtherism]… would have been conducted against a white president”:

We think it was a remarkable statement because somewhat similar campaigns already have been conducted against white candidates. A somewhat similar campaign was conducted in 1988 against Candidate Michael Dukakis, for instance. After that, strains of the same ethnic/nativist cards were played against Candidate Kerry in 2004.

Somewhat similar except, well, they aren’t — unless one can recall a protracted disinformation campaign against either individual questioning their bloody American citizenship (rather than, eg, their patriotism, a more common line of attack faced by the left) that managed to drive the news cycle for well over 3 years. Nyhan himself acknowledges that Obama’s “unique” life circumstances have driven the way conspiratorial attacks are framed, before trying to use Chester A. Arthur as a counterexample of a white president who also faced baseless attacks on his citizenship. Which is true, except, as again noted by Nyhan, those attacks were framed in the context of Arthur’s Irish identity.

In the 1800s.

(No need to apply, natch.)

So, um, yeah,  nativist attacks against a member of a marginalized ethnic group clearly prove that race isn’t really a factor when it comes to Birtherism.

Look, no matter how many counterarguments are offered, one shouldn’t discount the fact that Obama’s ethnic identity affects the tone and tenor of attacks being leveled against him, and how said attacks are received by the general public (without twisting one’s contentions into Gordian-like contortions, that is). From the beginning, race has influenced how we frame this issue (much like Clinton’s identity as an ex-’60s radical boomer fed into the still-lingering divide of an America embroiled in the Culture Wars, or W’s class background and swaggering anti-intellectualism shaped how he was portrayed and perceived, both by supporters and detractors). To point that out isn’t to label any and all critics or criticism racist (though, obviously, some are), but, again, to try and properly contextualize.

Political opportunists jump on any and all opportunities; for some, Obama’s racial identity presents an all-too-tempting opening for baseless attacks that, if leveled against, say, Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter, would hold no traction.

On a less analytical note, it’s frustrating to be constantly lectured about what is and isn’t ‘racist’ by those who, quite frankly, have no lived experience with racism, merely in abstract. For many of us, this isn’t an intellectual exercise. When we see Obama’s citizenship in question on a mass scale, we recall all the myriad times some cluelessly earnest soul has asked us where we’re from originally (because apparently dark skin in a normatively white culture instantly screams ‘other’), an all-too familiar suspicion that, through Birtherism, has now been magnified to ridiculous proportions.

Yes, based on past history, any Dem holding the keys to the Oval Office would likely be subject to a dishonest scorched earth smear campaign by the GOP and associated right-wing partisans. But that doesn’t mean Birtherism is simply par for the course. Obama is being attacked because he’s a Democratic POTUS and because he’s a scary person of colour with a funny name.

It’s not an either/or proposition.

One Response to “Obama’s Citizenship & Race: Separated at Birth?”

  1. daniel noe says:

    I can’t be sure that racism hasn’t played some role in the birther conspiracies, but possibly the largest role was Obama himself by not simply releasing his certificate from the beginning and silencing at least the reasonable strain within the birthers.

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