The Tragedy of the Birthers
November 29, 2009
It happened months ago, but I still can’t forget it. At a town hall meeting on July 20, 2009, a woman clutching her birth certificate declared that President Obama was not an American citizen. But it was not her doubt about Obama’s place of birth that struck me. It was her strong declaration: “I want my country back.”
There is an America that exists only in our minds. It is a combination of the history books we read as children–the ones that left out how we treated the Native Americans–and the television shows we watched–the ones that allowed a token minority character to be present, as long as he was extra-nice to everybody–and the story of America that we heard from our elders–the one that stopped at the end of World War II, when everything was perfect and Americans were kings.
I think that America is the one the woman clutching her birth certificate wants back. I think that the “birthers”–those who refuse to accept that President Obama was born in the United States–are having a very hard time accepting the fact that America elected a dark-skinned, half-African man to the presidency in November of 2008.
I think the birthers, as well as many of the people who blame all our country’s problems on the “illegals,” are having a very hard time accepting the fact that America now consists of people of many colors and ethnicities and religions they have never seen before.
John Edgar Wideman wrote about race in the August 2009 edition of Harper’s magazine, and his article included this sentence: “In post-race America, ‘white’ people would disappear.”
The statement refers to Mr. Wideman’s thesis that, in a raceless society, no one group (in our case, white people) would automatically assume a place at the top of the pecking order. The America the woman clutching her birth certificate wants back is the racist America–the one in which white people are the kings, the one that never really existed, except in our minds.
I think the woman clutching her birth certificate is a tragic figure because she truly feels as if she is disappearing. She is offering up her birth certificate as proof that she exists, and she emphatically believes that Barack Obama’s presidency will wipe out her identity. It is not going to be easy for us as a country to deal with people like her.
But we have a responsibility–to our country as it really is–to tell the birthers that they are wrong. The election of 2008 was legitimate, and so is Barack Obama. This is their country, and they are not disappearing.
What they are doing, though, is seriously blocking the flow of progress. As Bob Dylan wrote in a time similar to this one, “Your old road is rapidly aging. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.”
Birthers are entitled to their opinion. But their opinion invalidates them from being a part of the new-road America–the one that didn’t stop after World War II, the one where we acknowledge what we did to the Native Americans, and the one where a minority character can be elected President of the United States.