According to some polls, one in five Americans believes President Obama was born outside the United States, despite evidence to the contrary. One-third of conservative Republicans think he is a Muslim, despite his clear and consistent assertions of his Christian faith. Some adversaries of the President speak of him with an intensity that comes dangerously close to hatred.
What is happening here?
To be sure, U.S. politics and discourse have been polarized for more than a decade. But since Barack Obama became President, the angry rhetoric has taken on a dimension that can be explained principally by a more sinister motivation — and that includes racism.
Consider: We have now had nearly four years to become acquainted with this President, plenty of time to discredit fringe beliefs about his loyalties and character. In addition, the release of his long-form birth certificate should have closed the door on the “birther” controversy. Yet the percentage of birthers is roughly the same as before the release. Similarly, the President’s history and demonstration of his Christian faith should have dissolved the misconception that he is a Muslim — but the percentage of conservative Republicans who believe otherwise has actually doubled since 2008.
Clearly, this is not about facts. Taken together, however, these trends fit seamlessly into a deeper pattern: a fear of people who are different. Different, in the minds of too many, means foreign, and foreign is to be feared, even despised.
This is not, of course, how people who believe these misconceptions frame the issues. Birthers see themselves as defending the Constitution and even the nation as a whole. Some who see Obama as a Muslim claim an interest in defending the nation against the spreading influence of Islamic terrorists and strict sharia law. Most of these people would categorically reject the label of racism for themselves and their beliefs.
But that misunderstands racism itself. Many white Americans, in particular, equate racism with its historical expressions, including overt name calling, discrimination, and (at times in our history) cross burnings and separate drinking fountains for African Americans. Because these overt forms of racism do not show up in today’s mass media — and because more people of African American descent occupy high-level positions, like the U.S. presidency — people believe we live in a post-racial society.
The subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, racism of the attacks on Obama escapes their notice, even though they might dismiss the accuracy of the attacks themselves.
Whatever else may contribute to this dynamic, I believe race is a factor in the Presidential race — we cannot ignore that dimension of the reality we live in. Would you agree? Disagree? Where have you seen instances of subtle racism in U.S. culture? What could you do about it?
About the Author
For more than 40 years, Judith H. Katz, Ed.D., has worked with Fortune 50 companies to address systemic barriers, foster inclusive interactions, leverage diversity, and promote strategic culture change. She has authored or co-authored five books, including the landmark White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training, the first systematic training program to address racism from a white perspective.
Adam Berinsky, “The Birthers Are (Still) Back,” YouGov, 11 July 2012, http://today.yougov.com/news/2012/07/11/birthers-are-still-back (accessed 10 September 2012).
“Little Voter Discomfort with Romney’s Mormon Religion,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 26 July 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/Politics-and-Elections/Little-Voter-Discomfort-with-Romney%E2%80%99s-Mormon-Religion.aspx (accessed 10 September 2012).
Paul Waldman, “Have Republicans Ever Hated a President More Than Barack Obama?”The American Prospect, 27 July 2012, http://prospect.org/article/have-republicans-ever-hated-President-more-barack-obama (accessed 14 September 2012).