By Farooq A. Kperogi
It first began as a hushed whisper. Then it became the battle-cry of the right-wing lunatic fringe. And then it transformed to the incoherent murmurs of prominent conservative members of polite society—and became a media sensation. That’s the trajectory of the controversy over President Barack Obama’s American citizenship, which has hopefully come to an end after the public display of his “long form” birth certificate, which incontrovertibly shows that he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961.
Obama had previously caused his “certificate of live birth” to be made public during the 2008 presidential election when extremist conservative activists insisted he was born in Kenya. But right-wing conspiracy theorists maintained that the document was forged. They said it lacked doctors’ signatures. The fact that Obama’s birth was announced in a Honolulu newspaper on August 4, 1961 did nothing to convince the conservative bigots that Obama was a “natural born” American citizen.
|Obama's birth certificate. Click to enlarge|
Donald John Trump, the billionaire business magnate and TV personality who is flirting with the idea of a White House run as a Republican candidate, mainstreamed the right-wing paranoia about Obama’s American citizenship when he granted several high-profile media interviews in the past few weeks saying he had evidence that Obama was born in Kenya.
Now that Obama has publicly shown his birth certificate, Trump and other “birthers” (as conspiracy theorists about Obama’s putative Kenyan birth are called here; “birther,” by the way, made it to the Oxford Dictionary last year) have changed their agitation: they now want to see Obama’s college transcripts, which are private records by American law.
The new allegation is that Obama was not worthy of being educated in an Ivy League university (Obama attended Columbia University in New York for his undergraduate degree and Harvard University for his law degree) and that they need to see his transcripts to confirm this. They allege that Obama got admitted into Ivy League schools not on merit but on the basis of the racially inflected positive discrimination policy called Affirmative Action. This is patently untrue. Obama didn’t even mention his race when he applied to Harvard. Plus, he graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, that is, with the highest academic distinction. Inside Higher Ed, one of American’s most popular online sources for higher education news, has invented the term “transcripters” to describe this burgeoning lunatic group that is dedicated to unearthing Obama’s transcripts.
The racial bigotry that animates this bunch of right-wing zealots becomes apparent when you realize that John McCain, Obama’s opponent in the 2008 election, was actually born outside the continental United States; he was born in the Panama Canal Zone, an unorganized U.S. territory within the Republic of Panama in Central America. Until 1937, a year AFTER McCain was born, people born in that territory were only recognized as “U.S. nationals,” not “U.S. citizens.” That means they couldn’t be president of the United States. Even with the amendment, a child born in that territory (which is now fully part of the Panama Republic) is allowed to run for office only if at least one of their parents is a natural born U.S. citizen.
McCain was considered qualified to be president because the Congressional legislation that gave citizenship rights to people born in the territory applied it retroactively so that, although McCain was born in 1936, he can benefit from the rights and privileges that “natural born” American citizens enjoy.
I am bringing this example to illustrate the duplicity and undisguised racism that are at the core of the current right-wing “othering” of Obama. Were Obama to be caught in the labyrinthine web of citizenship rights issues as McCain was/is, he would have been outright termed a non-American citizen and therefore unworthy of being a U.S. president. In fact, all kinds of conspiracy theories would have sprouted about how he was born in the Republic of Panama OUTSIDE the U.S. territory and therefore neither a U.S. national nor a U.S. citizen. He would have been called a Panamanian. But McCain, thanks to white privilege, didn’t/doesn’t have to deal with that.
Also consider that George W. Bush, Obama’s predecessor, is on record as one of America’s dumbest presidents. Yet he attended Yale and Harvard, the leading Ivy League schools. No one has asked for his transcripts, nor has anyone questioned his worthiness to be admitted to the Ivy League schools he attended. But Obama, by far one of the smartest presidents America has ever had, is being told that that he didn’t deserve to be an Ivy Leaguer; that he must produce his transcript to prove that he was worthy of an Ivy League education.
All this doesn’t come to me as a surprise, though. I have written about white privilege and how it works. What I haven’t written about is the discourse of “otherness” in America’s official policy, a discourse that alienates, even dehumanizes, marginal identities. For instance, in America’s legal vocabulary, all non-Americans living in America are “aliens.” Aliens are further divided into categories. For example, people with a permanent work permit (or Green Card) are “resident aliens.” Those without one are “nonresident aliens.” It makes no difference that the “nonresident” aliens are actually resident in the country.
Resident and nonresident aliens collectively constitute “legal aliens.” All others are “illegal aliens” or, in extreme cases, “enemy aliens” (if you are citizens of an “enemy nation.”) This official discourse of alienation works subconsciously to predispose Americans to view non-dominant groups in their midst as hordes of potentially dangerous people from another planet, which is the popular conception of the term “aliens.” I know this sounds like stretching the imagination too far especially because the term is race-neutral in official application and is also used by several other nations. A British or German immigrant is as much an alien in U.S. official classification as a Nigerian or a Saudi is. And countries like the UK also designate non-citizens “aliens.”
However, in practice, the reality of white privilege often works to erase “alienness” from people who come from white, industrialized societies. It is “Others” that the label sticks to and dehumanizes. Plus, the term was first used by Americans in 1789 before other countries borrowed it.
It is supremely symbolic that Obama is the first American president whose citizenship has been called into question. Were his father to be a German or a citizen of some other European country, it is conceivable that no one would have doubted his “Americanness” much less ask for his birth certificate. It is the African part of his heritage that is causing him these troubles.
|Pictures like this subconsciously dispose Americans to view Obama as an "alien"|
It is worth noting, though, that only a tiny, fringe minority of racist bigots have hang-ups about Obama’s American citizenship. The vast majority of Americans think this whole thing is silly. And here lies America’s contradiction: it’s the country with the most liberal citizenship laws in the world (it’s infinitely easier to become an American citizen than it is anywhere else in the world) but it’s also the country with probably the most alienating terminologies to describe new immigrants.
It’s a fitting tribute to this contradiction that the country that has had the unparalleled distinction of electing the first black president in the white industrialized world is also the country where the president’s birth certificate (and therefore his very humanity) is the subject of litigation, vitriol, and unhealthy media punditry.