Is Birtherism Racist?

First of all, separate the titular question from two different questions:

1) Is Birtherism dumb?

Yes, I think it is. There is little question that Obama was born the USA.

2) Are some Birthers racists?

Of course. Some opposition to Obama is driven by racism. But not that much of it. How can I assert that? Most people who are driven nuts by Obama would have been enthusiastic about voting for Colin Powell in 2008 or 2012. And most of those people were even more virulent in their opposition to Bill Clinton. (I was actually around in the 1990s, so I remember! Think about it: Clinton was actually impeached. Nothing remotely like that has happened to Obama.)

Opposition to Obama is driven chiefly by the fact he is a liberal, not by his race. However, it is very convenient for Democrats to write off all opposition to their president as racism: now they don't have to make any argument, just engage in name calling!

(By the way, I supported Obama's election in 2008 and 2012. I am not an "Obama hater" trying to excuse my own opposition to him! But I know many people who fiercely oppose him, and I know they would have voted for Powell in a heartbeat. And many of them disliked Clinton even more than they dislike Obama.)

So, on to:

3) Is Birtherirsm racist?

Once we have handled 2) it should be obvious that the answer to 3) is "Don't be stupid."

People try to discredit the politicians they oppose. Both Democrats and Republicans do this, Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists do this, Conservatives and Labourites do this. They find semen stains on a dress left by the politician. They laugh at how the politician can't check out at the grocery store. They question whether he dodged military duty. They contend that maybe he isn't really legally qualified to hold office. They call him a racist. They say he is "dog whistling."

Folks, just like Geico saves you 15% or more on your car insurance, smear attacks are what partisans do. It's not pretty, and we may wish it were otherwise, but when accusation like this are flung at a black politician by members of the other party, that's not racism! That is partisan politics. What actually might be a wee bit racist is the notion that black politicians alone should be exempt from this rough-and-tumble.


  1. One test of whether a proponent of birtherism is motivated by racism would be to see if he believed in other conspiracy theories that didn't involve race. If someone thinks that Obama was born in Kenya but he also thinks that, say, vaccines cause autism, then Occam's Razor suggests you don't need to posit racism to explain his birther beliefs.

    By that standard, I think Trump is in the clear.

  2. Birtherism bugs me particularly compared to other odd things that Trump says. It’s like creationism: people believe in all sorts of goofball ideas, but that one just gets under my skin. Birthery is weird and so it calls some kind of explanation for the birthers’ behaviour. But, not being telepathic, I don’t really know what’s up with them. If I’m in a guessing mood, my guess is that it’s a (pseudo-legalistic, conspiratorial) response to their xenophobia, which is not quite the same thing as racism, but not so very different, either. They are, of course, on to something if they think that Mr. Obama is exotic. His father was a Kenyan genius who went to Harvard; he grew up partly in Indonesia, going to Muslim schools. Naturally, I don’t think these are bad traits, but they are certainly unusual for an American; Obama is “not from around here” in several significant respects. For sloppy thinkers who are already inclined to oppose him due to political alignment, this “unusual/not from around here” quality shades into “not one of us/bad foreigner” … which, seen through the lens of pseudo-legalistic, conspiratorial thinking, becomes “illegitimate/illegal”.

    Would Obama strike these people as less of a foreigner if his biological father was, say, a white man from Vladivostok? Probably. Therefore, it’s impossible to say this birther xenophobia is totally unracist.

    Of course, I’m just speculating here about other people’s motivations because they seem so opaque to me at face value. I think mainstream media pundits have a much broader range of values X such that Trump’s behaviour X is so weird that it calls for some kind of explanation (such as racism, xenophobia, pedophilia, etc.).