If you haven’t read it, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a fantastic essay on Barack Obama’s relationship to race and racism in the latest issue of The Atlantic. There’s too much to quote, but this paragraph captures the thesis:
In a democracy, so the saying goes, the people get the government they deserve. Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.
The power and symbolism of Obama’s election is compromised by the extent to which his presidency has been shaped by white expectations and white racism. Obama can’t show anger, he can’t propose policies tailored to African Americans and he can’t talk about race. In other words, he can’t remind white Americans that their president is a black man as much as anything else.
At the risk of sounding cynical, I expect that Coates will inspire howls of unfairness from the right. It’s almost forbidden to discuss the role racism has played in shaping opposition to Obama. Conservatives dismiss such concerns as “playing the race card”—and use it as an opportunity to accuse liberals of racism—while more neutral commentators note that Bill Clinton also faced a rabid conservative opposition. But as Coates points out, no one called Clinton a “food stamp president” or attacked his health care plan as “reparations.” Local lawmakers didn’t circulate racist jokes about the former Arkansas governor, and right-wing provocateurs didn’t accuse Clinton of fomenting an anti-white race war.
Of course, race isn’t the reason conservatives oppose Obama, but it shapes the nature of their opposition. The right wing would have exploded against Hillary Clinton as well. But they wouldn’t have waged a three-year campaign to discredit her citizenship.
With that said, I’m honestly amazed that—for many people—it’s beyond the pale to accuse a political party of exploiting racism for political gain. We’re only 47 years removed from the official end of Jim Crow and the routine assassination of black political leaders. This year’s college graduates are the children of men and women who remember—or experienced—the race riots of the late 1960s and 70s. The baby boomers—including the large majority of our lawmakers—were children when Emmett Till was murdered, teenagers when George Wallace promised to defend segregation in perpetuity, and adults when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed for his belief in the humanity of black people.
Five and a half million Americans are 85 or older. In the years they were born—assuming the oldest is 110 (several thousand Americans fit that bill)—1,413 African Americans were lynched. And that’s a rough estimate; the number is almost certainly higher. For nearly a third of our country’s history, this was a common occurence:
Interracial marriage was illegal in large swaths of the country when Barack Obama Sr. married Ann Dunham.
Mitt Romney was 31 when the Church of Latter Day Saints allowed African American priests, and repudiated early leader Brigham Young’s pronouncement that “The Lord had cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood.”
Nancy Pelosi grew up in segregated Baltimore.
Of course there are politicians and political parties that capitalize on racism. Why wouldn’t they? The end of our state-sanctioned racial caste system is a recent event in our history; more recent than Medicare or Medicaid, more recent than the advent of computers, more recent than the interstate highway system, and more recent than Social Security. Taken in the broad terms of a nation’s life, we’re only a few weeks removed from the widespread acceptance of white supremacy.
Race remains a potent way to activate voters and motivate them to the polls—see Mitt Romney’s current campaign against Obama’s fictional attack on welfare. To believe otherwise—and to see this country as a place that’s moved past its history—is absurd.
By: Jamelle Bouie, The American Prospect, August 23, 2012
“Inconvenient Biblical Truths” And Traditional Marriage: One Man, Many Women, Some Girls, Some Slaves
Well, it’s been quite a whirlwind week for same-sex marriage, from North Carolina to Obama to Colorado—and, of course, to the many outraged conservatives concerned with preserving traditional marriage, i.e., the time-honored sacred bond between one man and one woman. Why, just last week, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said that marriage has meant just that for over five thousand years.
Time to break out your Bible, Mr. Perkins! Abraham had two wives, Sarah and her handmaiden Hagar. King Solomon had 700 wives, plus 300 concubines and slaves. Jacob, the patriarch who gives Israel its name, had two wives and two concubines. In a humanist vein, Exodus 21:10 warns that when men take additional wives, they must still provide for their previous one. (Exodus 21:16 adds that if a man seduces a virgin and has sex with her, he has to marry her, too.)
But that’s not all. In biblical society, when you conquered another city, tribe, or nation, the victorious men would “win” their defeated foes’ wives as part of the spoils. It also commanded levirate marriage, the system wherein, if a man died, his younger brother would have to marry his widow and produce heirs with her who would be considered the older brother’s descendants. Now that’s traditional marriage!
Later Islamic and Jewish sources, unclear on these parameters (the prophet Muhammad, of course, had several wives), debated whether it is permissible for a man to marry a three- or four-year-old girl. St. Paul, meanwhile, said that marriage was a compromise between the ideal of celibacy and the unfortunate fact that people like to have sex. Fortunately, we pluralists can appreciate both those religious traditions which advise men to marry little girls and those which tell them not to marry anyone at all.
And of course, even until the present day, traditional marriage has meant arranged marriage. The notion that two adults would enter into a marriage on their own volition is a radical innovation in the institution of marriage, at most two hundred years old.
Oh, and let’s not forget that in Europe and North America, marriage was considered a commercial proposition first and foremost—not a romantic one. Princes married princesses not because of fairy tales, but because their parents had political alliances to consider. Further down the economic ladder, people married for a variety of biological, commercial, and genealogical reasons—but rarely for love. (See Stephanie Coontz’s excellent Marriage: A History for more.)
Oh, and that’s right, I almost forgot about interracial marriage, which in some parts of America was seen as a crime against nature and God up until the 1960s. (Of course, Moses himself was in an interracial marriage, but the anti-miscegenation crowd overlooked that inconvenient fact.) It’s easy today for the likes of Tony Perkins to say that this change was a minor one; but let’s remember that a century ago, African Americans were not considered fully human by religious conservatives. Interracial marriage—as much as it’s disgusting to even say so today—was seen as an unnatural marriage between different species.
Oh, wait a minute, I forgot the most laughable part of this whole ludicrous spectacle: that it’s the Mormon Mitt Romney who’s insisting that marriage has “always” been between one man and one woman. Right—except that Romney’s own great-grandfather had five wives, before the LDS church, under massive pressure and persecution, reversed its doctrine on polygamy.
So, let’s see if I can total all this up. Traditional marriage is one man with multiple wives, multiple concubines, wives conquered in war and wives acquired in levirate marriage, possibly including girls under the age of ten, but definitely not including anyone of a different ethnic group, in an arranged marriage with disposition of property as its purpose. That seems very different from “one man, one woman,” does it not?
Of course, it’s easy to say that marriage as an institution evolves—but then, if we admit that, we have to admit that sanctioning loving, same-sex unions is just another step in that evolution. Perhaps this is why the Tony Perkinses of the world simply ignore the Bible when it doesn’t suit their purposes, instead preferring to make pseudo-scientific (and wholly unsupported) claims about what’s best for children and society. The Bible’s truths are just too inconvenient.
By: Jay Michaelson, Religion Dispatches, May 16, 2012
There has been a lot written about the make-up of the Republican primary electorate in 2012. By now, it has become clear how very conservative they are, how many of them are evangelicals, how social issues motivate many of them, and how truly angry they are at President Obama.
As I have written before, this is not your mother’s Republican Party.
But the latest polls by the reputable and respected Public Policy Polling group in Tuesday’s primary states of Alabama and Mississippi tell a pretty disturbing story. They surveyed 656 likely Republican voters in Mississippi and 600 in Alabama this past week.
In Alabama, 45 percent described themselves as “very conservative” and 36 percent as “somewhat conservative”; in Mississippi, those numbers were 44 percent and 34 percent respectively. Not a huge shock there.
In Alabama, 68 percent describe themselves as “Evangelical Christian.” In Mississippi, that percentage was 70 percent. Again, not that surprising in the deep South.
But here comes the more disturbing news: In Alabama, 60 percent do not believe in evolution. In Mississippi, the figure is 66 percent.
When it comes to interracial marriage, 29 percent of Republican primary voters in Mississippi believe it should be illegal. In Alabama, 21 percent think it should be illegal.
Now, both of those last two answers would really mean turning back the clock!
And on Barack Obama’s religion, in response to the straightforward question, “Do you think Barack Obama is a Christian or a Muslim or are you not sure?” the answers are scary. In Alabama, 14 percent say Christian, 45 percent say Muslim, 41 percent are not sure. In Mississippi, 12 percent say Christian, 52 percent say Muslim, and 36 percent are not sure.
Several years ago we saw disturbing numbers on the Muslim question, but there has been enough publicity, enough coverage, enough debunking of the false accusations, that one would think that people would have moved on. Not so.
Why do the most engaged voters in Republican primaries seem to hold views that are outright false? Is the hatred of Obama so visceral that they will believe anything that comes across the Internet? Are their views reinforced by friends and neighbors? Do they simply not believe any facts when they are presented?
The truly scary thing is that though these numbers are from two states, this is looking less like an aberration. The Republican primary voters over the last few decades have become increasing more radically conservative, the delegates to the conventions more far right, the Republican Party more rigid. It was impossible for Sen. John McCain to nominate a Tom Ridge or a Joe Lieberman as vice president—too pro-choice. The platform at each convention has become more conservative, especially on social issues. The no-tax pledge has become a needless straight-jacket, yet signed by virtually all Republicans in Congress.
But, these two polls show a remarkable closed-mindedness when it comes to issues of race and religion that many thought were settled with open-mindedness. Apparently not.
By: Peter Fenn, U. S. News and World Report, March 14, 2012
Now that President Obama and his national security team have proven their mettle in pursuing and finally eliminating the supreme Islamic terrorist, a question arises: Will the not-insignificant chunk of voters who have rejected the president’s basic legitimacy — expressing skepticism about the circumstances of his birth in the face of conclusive proof that he was born here — be more likely to view Obama as “American” now?
On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” over the weekend, Washington Post reporter Nia-Malika Henderson suggested that the birther movement may not be about race. She compared the buzz around the issue to those conspiracy-minded individuals who tied Bill Clinton to the “murder” of Vince Foster in 1993 — an observation that other have made as well. It just seems too easy to describe the ruling passion of those who label President Obama a secret Muslim (or, to recall Mike Huckabee’s infamous slur, a Kenyan revolutionary), as strictly racist. History, though, yields enough clues to suggest that journalists who look for alternative explanations are wrong.
Birtherism has a distinctive history. If you go to the birther.org website, you will find a history lesson along with their creed: “The Birthers: Dedicated to the Rebirth of the Constitutional Republic.” Much like the Tea Partiers, birthers have linked themselves to America’s founding fathers. Their fealty to the Constitution is centered on a single phrase in Article II that requires the president to be a “natural born citizen.”
What does the all-important phrase mean? Birthers interpreting Article II say that “the president must above all else be loyal to this nation.” It is a “self-evident” truth that such loyalty is drawn from nature–and they are quite explicit about what that means: “kinship, our most primitive and natural form of citizenship, from blood”; a nativity which comes “from the soil,” or “place of birth.” It is an ideal of kinship that energizes the birther movement—the transmission of civic identity by descent, through bloodlines, from parents to children.
The website also makes it clear that, for birthers, a natural-born president must have natural-born parents, and that civic identity only exists in a homogeneous population. “If the parents were split in their loyalties,” the website declares, “the child would be split in loyalty to America.” Mixed heritage is thus a liability, for it undermines proper patriotic breeding. Indeed, for the birthers, the breeding question is inextricably linked to a person’s genetic vulnerability.
President Obama was raised by his white, midwestern mother, and her parents. But his actual upbringing matters not a bit to birthers. For most of them, Obama is his father’s son, because kinship is measured though the traditional order of the father’s line. To make their claims stick, birthers have had to erase President Obama’s mother from the fanciful narrative of his African birth. Just as Glenn Beck indelicately declared that Obama had an instinctive hatred of white people, birthers divorced him from his mother’s family. The father he hardly knew remains the dominant force in his life; the president cannot be an American because he is loyal to his patriarchal line, that is, to his father’s race.
Not surprisingly, the birthers have the Constitution all wrong. The delegates who attended the convention in Philadelphia in 1787 were not much concerned with the president’s nativity. In establishing the chief executive’s qualifications, the initial proposal focused on age and duration of residency, and said nothing about his being a “natural born citizen.” The founders made no mention of any requirement that the parents of the president be natural born citizens either. Nor, for that matter, did they require the president to be a Christian. Abigail Adams, the wife of the second president, referred to her daughter-in-law, Louisa Catherine, who married John Quincy Adams, as a “half blood”; by this cultural (though not legalistic) designation she meant that one parent was American, the other English. In sum, the founders could easily have specified that the president have “natural born” parents. But they did not. The reason is obvious. Any talk about kinship and bloodlines bore the taint of aristocracy and royalty, a caste system the founders had rejected during the Revolution.
The convention delegates did, however, vigorously debate the requirements for senators and representatives. Some delegates expressed fears of “foreign attachments”; future vice president Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts indulged in some wild conspiracy mongering when he proposed longer residency requirements for House members to prevent the possibility that foreign governments (he meant the British) might send spies to infiltrate the federal government. He hoped that, in the future, only the native-born would be eligible to serve in the House.
Yet even Gerry could never have imagined the 21st-century birther conspiracy, the most extreme versions of which evoked the “Manchurian Candidate,” a plot so cleverly devised that the institution of the presidency could be subverted by placing a secret Muslim in the White House. In fact, the deepest fear the founders expressed had nothing to do with the president’s qualifications. Instead, it was the military powers with which the Constitution endows him. They worried that as commander-in-chief, he might be bought off by a foreign government and drawn into unnecessary wars at the behest of an ally to whom he felt personally indebted. To counteract their fear, the framers insisted that Congress alone be authorized to declare war.
Despite all their efforts, the birther movement cannot look to the founders for its inspiration. Their ideas grow out of a traditional obsession with the legal status of free blacks and mulattos in the decades before the Civil War. When a firestorm of debate flared over Missouri’s admission to the Union in 1819-1820, northern and southern congressmen tangled and principles yielded to racial prejudices. Missouri’s proposed constitution barred blacks from entering the state who were not the legal property of white men. While northerners argued that free blacks were not “aliens or slaves,” but “free citizens,” opposing politicians and jurists twisted the law to justify the argument that native born free black Americans could be denied the same constitutional protections that native-born white Americans claimed. In the years before the South finally seceded, judges issued decisions in which free blacks were described as “our wards” or “strangers to our Constitutions.” Mississippi’s highest court categorized free U.S. residents of African descent as “alien strangers.”
The question of how to define a natural-born citizen reached the Supreme Court in the notorious Dred Scott case of 1857. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (appointed by unapologetic slave-owner Andrew Jackson) argued that free blacks were never contemplated by the founders as part of the national community. Insisting that African Americans were not recognized as citizens in any state, before or after the Revolution, he dismissed all contrary evidence. To Taney, as with the birthers, facts were irrelevant.
Taney’s goal was to restrict citizenship to one of two processes: naturalization or biological inheritance. Blacks had been explicitly excluded from citizenship in the federal Naturalization Act of 1790, he noted. Even more telling, according to constitutional historian James Kettner, Taney wished to ignore “volumes of judicial precedents emphasizing place of birth without regard to ancestry.” Taney thus transformed “natural born citizen” into a racial category.
The birthers have the same idea in mind. Ultimately, they don’t really care what it says on President Obama’s birth certificate, short or long form. For these modern-day Taneyites, Obama’s citizenship is questionable because his civic identity is tainted by descent — he is, unmistakably, the son of an African man. The birthers, like Taney, believe that a natural-born citizen must be possess the right pedigree: he must descend from the same race as the founders, or be born on U.S. soil in the image of the founders. For Taney, the national community was a closed community. Even if they haven’t gone so far as to say so explicitly, for today’s birthers the presidency is an exclusive club.
Their obsession with placing Obama in Africa at the moment of his birth was a means to diminish the influence of his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. Republican hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee deliberately circulated the strange story that Obama’s politics can be traced, genetically, to the anti-colonial revolutionary rhetoric that once existed in his father’s homeland.
But what about the equally ridiculous claim that Obama’s paternal grandmother testified to her grandson’s birth in Kenya? Why did that idea capture birthers’ imaginations? Here, historical precedent may again shed light. In 1907, a law was passed in the United States stating that any natural-born female who married an alien automatically lost her citizenship. She was expatriated without her consent. Compare that to the law that prevailed from 1855 to 1922, by which any alien woman who married an American citizen immediately became a citizen, bypassing the normal naturalization process.
It was a longstanding tradition in American history that a wife’s civil and political rights came through her husband. Under the law, marriage made husband and wife “one person.” The argument that citizens cannot have two allegiances was applied to wives: her first allegiance was to her husband. She could not vote or exercise political rights, because she had no independent civic identity. Her husband acted as her political proxy, voting in her stead. Recall that women did to receive the right to vote until 1920.
The birthers, too, in recurring to antiquated racist assumptions, assume that President Obama cannot have dual allegiances. Either he is all-American or else his true loyalty resides elsewhere. Birthers have made Obama’s mother a cipher all over again. Her political identity was subsumed into her African husband’s. In effect, he “voted” for her. Because she is deceased, it has been easy for birthers (not to mention the hubristic Donald Trump) to erase the president’s mother from the picture. She was never able to testify. And her World War II hero father presumably had no need to; his service to his country should have spoken volumes.
At the time of the 1907 law, women who married aliens were considered unpatriotic. Until 1967, interracial marriages could still be considered illegal in most southern states. What matters to birthers, subconsciously or otherwise, is the taint of foreign blood, the taint of African blood, Obama, Sr.’s alien status. Stanley Ann Dunham had made an unnatural and unpatriotic choice of a husband.
The racism of the birther movement, then, is not just a wacko conspiracy. Adherents of this new old cause have a large following because of our country’s troubled history. Of course, Americans are by no means the only culture to rationalize discrimination on racial and gender grounds. It happens on every continent, constantly. In the modern age, anxiety over what makes a “real” American is most often tied to wartime, or “Cold War time”; but in this case, it was the “national emergency” of a person becoming president whose physiognomy tapped into vestigial fears.
Finally, there is the newly hatched probe (thank you, once again, Donald) into the president’s educational pedigree. For hardcore birthers, President Obama cannot possibly deserve his office. There must be a catch somewhere. How, akin to “uppity” free blacks past, did he move into elite circles from which black aspirants were traditionally barred? The world has been turned upside down for birthers.
The term “birther” has always sounded idiotic. If they want a more legitimate-sounding name, they should call themselves “descenters.” For what they really seem to be defending is that every child inherits his nationality from his father, just as he inherits his surname: Barack Hussein Obama II instead of Barry Dunham.
In their campaign to unearth the secret life of President Obama, birthers make descent more important than consent — the republican principle that Americans choose their officeholders by popular election. For them, nature trumps consent. According to their logic, natural-born presidents have natural-born American parents. And by nature, they mean the traits passed down from one’s ancestors to his rightful heirs. We’ve seen this logical construction before: it worked for something known as the “divine right of kings.” Loyalty to the sovereign? Didn’t we, at some point, declare national independence in order to move beyond that sort of thinking?
So maybe those who suggest that it’s not just racism that motivates the birthers really are on to something. Maybe it’s something that really is un-American..
By: Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, Salon War Room, May 4, 2011