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Let's Call the 'Birthers' What They Are

Perhaps the time has come to state the obvious.

The people who have been selling claims that President Obama is not American — the Donald Trumps, the Orly Taitzes, the miserable state legislators hawking their snake-oil laws insisting that presidential candidates prove their citizenship — are mostly a pack of racists. In the cases where they are not, they are shameless opportunists perfectly willing to exploit racism for their own personal benefit, proponents of a second Republican “Southern strategy.”

And let’s not give a pass to the 25% of Americans who a Harris poll found last month believe Obama was not born in this country despite endless knockdowns by serious news organizations. Common sense — along with an important new study revealing the high levels of racism among those who make such claims — make it obvious what’s going on here. These people are either plainly stupid, or, far more often, whites who see Obama as the Other, the dark-skinned person who represents a racially changing society that they loathe and fear and resent.

But the really vile players in this whole sorry episode aren’t so much the feckless American public, a population notorious for its predilection for groundless conspiracy theories and magical thinking. They are the politicians and the commentators, the so-called responsible leaders and analysts of our society, people who are perfectly willing to consciously lie to get a little attention. They’re ambitious pols like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, talking heads like Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh — people who question Obama’s citizenship as a cynical way of employing racism to gin up their ratings and political support.

Take a look at Trump, the narcissistic New Yorker who has become the chief hawker of the myth that Obama was born in Kenya, telling every reporter who would listen that he knew Obama had no birth certificate. When the president finally released that certificate to the public yesterday, Trump’s distract-them-at-any-cost reaction was to crow about how he was responsible for this enlightening release — and then to immediately question how Obama, who he described against all the evidence as a “terrible student,” got into Harvard Law School.

Yes, Donald, we get your drift. Obama’s a black guy who rose from humble origins — not like you, a little Richie Rich who became a real estate mogul after your daddy handed it all to you — and he got into a school far better than any you ever attended. And while you say lamely that you get along with “the blacks” just fine, you just don’t think it’s possible that any black man could be smart enough on his own to get into Columbia University, go on to Harvard Law School, become an editor and then president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, and then graduate magna cum laude.

In recent weeks, some Republican leaders have tried to distance themselves from the “birther” claims about Obama, saying the issue had become a distraction from the many real problems facing the nation. That all sounds very nice, but let’s remember that these same leaders refused to tamp down the nuts before, saying, as did House Speaker John Boehner, that it was not their job to end the attacks. The truth, of course, is that the specious birther claims were lighting up the more unpleasant elements in the Republicans’ base, and Boehner had no interest in squelching that.

An interesting perspective on that base’s attitudes was revealed in a USA Today story yesterday, detailing the results of a study led by Eric Hehman of the University of Delaware and appearing in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In a nutshell, Hehman and his partners concluded “that current criticisms of Obama are a result of his race, rather than his agenda.” They also found that “higher prejudice predicted Whites seeing Obama as less American, which, in turn, predicted lower evaluations of his performance.”

As The New York Times pointed out in its lead editorial today, “It is inconceivable that this campaign to portray Mr. Obama as the insidious ‘other’ would have been conducted against a white president.” Perhaps the sane people among us can now agree on the obvious: The continuing conspiracy theories about Obama — from his country of birth to his religion to his relationships with the radical left — come from people who are essentially motivated by antipathy toward black people.

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