The Birther conspiracy: white America’s racist fantasy
The ‘birthers’, no name could be more misleading for a group of people who want to be taken seriously about their beliefs, but there is nothing serious, logical or reasonable about people who believe that Barack Obama was born in a country outside the CONUS. If you suggest to people that the idea of questioning the birth circumstances of America’s first non-white president has more than a whiff of racism about it, they get defensive. Some may even claim that you’re ‘obsessed’ with race and that ‘everything’ you say is ‘about race’. But such beliefs – for this is what they are – are also an exercise of denial on the part of the ‘birther’, who is as likely as not to dismiss you as a ‘sheeple’ if you refuse or refute their ‘truths’.
It is undeniable that the language of racism has changed a great deal since the 1970s and racists themselves are conscious of a need to speak in words that aren’t necessarily directly related to what Fanon (1986) called ‘melanism’; a classificatory practice that is based on pseudo-scientific notions of biological difference and characterised by the outward marker of skin colour. Therefore the more ideologically-inclined of their number will resort to purely economic language to circumlocute the subject of discourse. For example, there is a belief on the part of a particular group within the American libertarian right that Jim Crow should have continued because, in their eyes, denying the rights of white Americans to deny African-Americans access to a variety of socio-economic activities was a refusal of white freedoms. This was America’s apartheid that was rationalized in similar terms to South Africa by British apologists (The Freedom Association, for example) for the latter’s racist regime.
The fixation that some people have with Obama’s circumstances of birth is doubtlessly predicated on a racist trope: namely that blacks are not full citizens of the United States. This belief has its origins in slavery when blacks were the property of their masters. Even free blacks (and, indeed, Indians) were not considered citizens: they could not vote and were barred from holding public office. When African-Americans were enfranchised at the end of the Civil War, they continued to be denied the vote in the former Confederate states through the means of pseudo-legalistic mechanisms like The Grandfather clause or the Poll Tax. The former was enacted at the biological level and the latter was exercised economically. It took further Federal legislation to force change on the southern states. Even so, the question of who is allowed to be American and who is not persists with certain sections of the American right.
Like suspicious software that can be downloaded on the Internet, the birther narrative often comes bundled with other dubious narratives that tend to orbit other unpleasant and sometimes hidden discourses, some of which may be related to discredited tracts like The Protocols and bizarre notions about lizards-in-human-form. Wherever you find a site about World Financial Conspiracies, you will also find an abundance of birther material. Those who choose to believe these conspiracy theories appear to be substituting one form of extreme religious belief for another.
Recently, I have found myself having to deal with conspiracy theorists on Facebook and elsewhere. I have tried to use logic and examples from history in an attempt to get them to think critically about their beliefs but, as anyone who has dealt with cultists will recognize, this is an impossible task. The ‘Birther’ conspiracies are some of the most vile racist ideas to have been propagated since The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. When I point out to CT’s that these notions were produced by racist discourses, the reply that I get from them is “I’m not a racist”. But if you’re not a racist, then why do you subscribe to racist discourses? They have no answer. It’s like saying to a born-again Christian that praying achieves nothing; all you are doing is refusing responsibility for your life and your actions – or lack of them.
The way in which the birther conspiracy has morphed over the course of the last few years demonstrates the CT’s slipshod grasp of reality. First, they claimed Obama’s birth certificated was “forged” and that he was, in fact, a Muslim who was born in either Kenya (his father’s place of birth) or Indonesia (his stepfather’s place of birth). Even Obama’s church-going wasn’t enough for these people, who fail to understand that if a Muslim goes into a church and partakes in its rituals, that person would be considered an apostate. To this, the CT’s claimed that Obama was also a “Marxist”. But if that were true, why did he bail out the banks? Why hasn’t Obama created a proper Marxist economy instead of attempting to patch up a fatally-wounded capitalist economic system? Again, the CT cannot produce a coherent reply and instead, falls back on tropes. ‘Obamacare’, they scream. When it is pointed out to them that the biggest opponents of universal healthcare are big pharma and the medical insurance companies, both of whom have an interest in producing scare stories, there is no reply, just more of the same gibberish about people having chips implanted into their bodies or nanites being injected into their bloodstreams. It’s the stuff of dystopian science fiction.
More recently, CTs have claimed that Obama, who shortened his first name to the more English-sounding “Barry” in his youth, renounced his US citizenship when his mother married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian. The CTs claim that he applied for a Fulbright Scholarship at Occidental College under the name ‘Barry Soetoro’, yet the college has no record of this and, even if Obama had taken his stepfather’s surname, it’s hardly unusual or surprising. It happens all the time. Naturally, CTs will then claim that Obama “ordered the college to destroy any records”. When you ask them to produce evidence to support this claim, guess what happens? Not much. Just more incoherent babble. In fact, when Obama visited Ireland to connect with his Irish roots, I Gaelicized his name to Bairre Ó Beámagh for a laugh. I don’t doubt that he has Irish ancestors. I, too, have Irish and Scottish ancestors. There is no such thing as pure ethnicity and even those white racists who talk about the “indigenous British” have no idea what they’re talking about because this is an island nation of immigrants and invaders.
The most revealing thing about the birther conspiracy is that Black people don’t buy into it. It is supported entirely by whites. Furthermore, Obama is not actually black, he is of mixed parentage and as those people who are of mixed parentage will tell you, they’re always being questioned on their origins. For example I have been referred to to variously as ‘Arab’ or ‘Pakistani’, although I am neither. People will make up things about you if they are blind or foolish enough to buy into the superficialities of skin colour as a marker of a person’s identity and/or culture. This ethnic purism is undoubtedly racist. To this end, the Obama birth conspiracy was concocted by white racists who couldn’t come to terms with the fact that a man who is not white is now President of the United States.
The conspiracy theory is quickly supplanting religion as a belief system. The followers of conspiracy theories are highly devoted to their beliefs and blinded by their faith in questionable ideas. They are unable or unwilling to interrogate the sources that they frequently cite and accept any information so long as it accords with their beliefs. Unwittingly CTs produce a confirmation bias that is endlessly looped in their mind. In fact, it is the only voice they hear.
This mediamatters blog is worth a read.
Fanon, F. (1986) Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press
Gilroy, P. (2007) There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. London: Routledge
Hall, S. (ed.) (1997) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London: Sage.