As part of his re-election campaign you can go on President Obama’s website and buy a mug that features “Made in the USA” on one side and a copy of his birth certificate on the other. It is meant to be a cute jab at those who continue, despite a mountain of evidence, to claåim that President Obama is not only Muslim and Socialist, but is also Kenyan. It is both astounding and appalling to report that an estimated 1 in 10 Americans and 3 out of 10 Republican believe that Obama was born in Kenya and therefore ineligible to hold his current office.
While the Obama campaign created this mug as a joke, this refusal to recognize Obama as American is not really funny and is indicative of the racism that still exists in the US. These “birthers” are not just fringe elements, but parts of their beliefs have made it into mainstream Republican talking points. Birthers are racist, but the ideology they draw from is used by far more people than just themselves. Racism is not just vocalized contempt for another race. It is a system of value whereby bodies are assigned certain positive or negative values; where some bodies are considered normal, while others are abnormal.
After Obama became President we saw a rash of Tea Party-style protests across the country. In a few well-publicized instances where President Obama was speaking, conservatives made a display of openly carrying weapons as they stood outside of the venue. The majority of these protestors were white and they were not arrested and treated respectfully. Can you imagine how the media or the police would respond if a group of young black men showed up brandishing weapons outside of President Bush’s speeches? They would probably be rotting in GITMO right now.
If we were to compare further the way in which Obama and Bush are criticized we can also see a difference. At worst Bush was a “war criminal” and he was incompetent who may have let 911 happen. But although Bush was terrible he was never not American. For Obama he gets the same antagonistic rhetoric, but it ends not with him being terrible, it end with him being foreign and not belonging.
In 2009, when Sonia Sotomayor was nominated as the first Latina for the Supreme Court, a former Republican Presidential Pat Buchanan candidate made an interesting comment:
"White men were 100 per cent of the people that wrote the Constitution, 100 per cent of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100 per cent of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, probably close to 100 per cent of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built basically by white folks…”
Buchanan was upset at the way white people are being marginalized in the US and Sotomayor, with her pride in her ethnicity was evidence of that. It is important not to associate this quote only with Buchanan, as it is something that animates the consciousness of many in the US, and not just those who are white. What Buchanan is arguing is that the US, despite being diverse has been historically strong because of its whiteness, and in today’s multicultural world this fact is often forgotten.
In Buchanan’s mind what makes America great is its white soul. This is a point that you need not mention in order to accept, but it is based on the idea that the normal, the real Americans are those who are “white.” The Birthers respond to Obama in the Oval Office as a clear threat to that white soul they believe has made America great. He and other ethnic groups tarnish that greatness and dilute and complicate what America has been.
Whiteness as we know it has only been around for about 150 years, and every step of the way there were people of everything ethnic group there, some forcibly included. Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and Asians built this country, but unfortunately did so while being chained, displaced and discriminated against.
Even if most people can agree that Buchanan’s statement is both factual wrong and racist most people accept some version of this as true. In the office of the President there have been over 40 different white men. There have been both good and bad leaders, but scarcely has anyone ever uttered anything close to resembling “can American handle another white male President?” The idea of a white man in charge is the norm in the US, but should a woman or a person of another race occupy that position, people like the Birthers appear.
Barack Obama represents an important step in challenging the white soul fiction of the US. And since I can’t vote for him in November, I’ll do my part by buying one of those “Made in the USA” mugs.