From the Archives: Birtherism and White Privilege

While stumping in his home state of Michigan yesterday, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney addressed the crowd and made this cringe inducing statement:

“No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place where both of us were born and raised.”

Clearly he’s referring to the Birther controversy that plagued President Obama during his 2008 campaign. It hit a fever pitch just early last year when Donald Trump joined tea partiers who protested and rallied for Obama to release his birth certificate.

It’s not often that pieces will be pulled from the archives, but this column from last year still rings true today as people continue to process Romney’s remarks and understand what we’re really up against. Take a look at this column for now, as it’ll inform a featured post next week on the 2012 election and the issue of white privilege.

If you need a primer on what exactly “white privilege” is or means, this post from the Amptoons blog excerpts the work of Prof. Peggy McIntosh — and really breaks it down into small, mini examples that can aid in understanding why it plays a role in our social interactions. 

This column was originally published in the 5/2/2011 edition of The Daily Northwestern. You may find the original here.

Bir•ther; n. a conspiracy theorist claiming that President Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, thereby disqualifying him from the presidency, often with racist undertones.

Allow me to be blunt: the nagging calls for the President of the United States to produce his birth certificate, revived by Donald Trump after lingering since the 2008 elections, finally culminated in a very public release of the official document. That’s right, your president.

The reality of seeing my president’s birth certificate as front page news worldwide provoked my disgust and embarrassment about the state of our country’s politics. It’s not enough that one of the world’s most successful businesswomen, a renowned astrophysicist, a publishing giant, numerous government officials and many other nameless, faceless Blacks and other people of color have risen to prominence in areas that many of these same types of people said we never could – often to our faces. Saying this birther hogwash isn’t rooted in racism and white privilege…hell, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

It seems some people, mainly some white people, just can’t accept that a minority won a presidential election fair and square versus a bona fide member of the good ol’ boys club. Ever since Obama’s election, many have refused to gracefully acknowledge his political prowess, instead attempting to frame him as the presidency’s ‘quota’ hire. Now that Obama’s thrown down the gauntlet and released his certificate, Trump and many others now inquire about Obama’s grades at Columbia and Harvard Law and how he was admitted to begin with. Republican political strategist Pat Buchanan even said his education was “affirmative action all the way.”

Perhaps even sadder is that this is clearly an effort to undermine the qualifications and legitimacy of a president who some are dissatisfied with at the moment, especially conservatives and tea party folks outraged by the course of Obama’s presidency thus far. Instead of focusing on the meat and potatoes of policy discussions, the discourse has now pathetically resorted to a politics of divide and conquer – something Obama himself reminded us in 2008 that we can rise above if we work for progress together.

I have a feeling some of you think it’s alright to excuse the behavior of Trump and other birthers recently, saying it’s valid if he “didn’t release it quickly enough” or “if his dad was from Kenya.” And I know some of you might feel I and others submit to a victim mentality when discussing injustices like these. But whether you know it or not, the dilemma of white privilege is blinding perspective on how the birthers and others make people like me feel. It just reaffirms things we already know.

Whiteness and white privilege in America is like one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets. Getting one makes almost every day golden, in a sense, and you get special access to all of the goodies American life has to offer – minus the ‘chocolate’, of course.

Whiteness never gets asked for a birth certificate when running for president. Did Reagan, the Bushes or even Clinton get asked? No.

Whiteness never gets its educational qualifications questioned, even when they are admittedly below par. President Bush was admittedly a lackluster student at Yale, yet many found that endearing and voted for him based on his convictions. President Obama can’t even catch a break these days even with a stellar Ivy League background.

Whiteness never gets questioned when it challenges power. Trump, Buchanan, Palin, Bachmann and others have challenged Obama in their own way, but the tinges of racism present in their discourse is explained away, excused and won’t face dire consequences.

Trump’s behavior more than proves what I’ve known since Obama’s election, contrary to public naivete – including quite a few Northwestern students: we are not above racialized politics and America certainly is not post-race. Clearly, Trump is just one in the number of many who believe the White House only belongs to White people.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one hoping Trump’s racist, over-privileged cohorts don’t get their “property” back in 2012. Every American should have that ever elusive ‘golden ticket’, to the White House or any opportunity we see fit to work towards, not just those of us born rich and/or white.


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