There’s a lot of page space right now devoted to Donald Trump’s false claims in the history of the ‘birther controversy’—Trump has said numerous times that Hillary Clinton’s campaign started the rumour that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US, and that Trump himself demanded that he produce his birth certificate in 2011. Both are patently false, and Trump continued to trade on the rumor that the president was born abroad as recently as a couple of weeks ago. When he finally admitted one falsehood, he started promoting another. Nicholas Kristof, in a Saturday NY Times article this week about how the press needs to stop being shy about pointing out Trump lies, says, “…few facts are clearer than that President Obama was born in the United States, yet only 62% of American voters say he was born here.”
What I see few people talking about is the deeper import of the accusation: it’s not just that Obama’s African heritage and the rule that a president must be born here make him vulnerable to such rumours. The ‘pernicious rumor’ that he is a Muslim—as though that also would disqualify him—is closer to what I think is going on. It’s that many white Americans (at least 38%, I would say, if we believe Kristof’s stats) have a hard time seeing their race-descriptor as a qualifier: they don’t give themselves a hyphen, because ‘white’ is somehow implied in ‘American,’ whereas Indian-American, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans are all only partially American, even, apparently, many generations in.
It’s what anyone knows who was born here but told, “Go back where you came from.”
The birther controversy is just a new way of saying that: we want you to go back where you came from. Even if we brought your ancestors here by force 250 years ago, we are done with you now, so you can go back where you came from now. That’s the message of police brutality against people of color: What are you still doing here? Of Voter ID laws: Show me your papers. Of questioning Obama’s citizenship: go ahead and show your birth certificate. We still don’t believe you belong.