When discussing birtherism, when can we call racism, racism? When is it ok?
Well, let's just ask The Daily Show. According to them, birtherism has more to do with scaring old people than painting a Black President as the perpetual "other" and denying him the place of his birth.
On Thursday, The Daily Show tackled the birther issue for the second night in a row. And when the topic of racism came into play, host Jon Stewart turned towards his trusty "Senior Black Correspondent," Larry Wilmore, to make sense of it all.
Wilmore's thesis: It's not racism, it's opportunism.
The sketch proceeds to suggest that the birther movement isn't about bigotry. No, instead it's about seizing the opportunity to scare old people. Respectfully, this premise misses the mark when discussing race and politics.
Implicit in all of this is a familiar argument that often comes from Democratic and Liberal circles when denying issues of race and this President. The dodge I speak of is the claim that President Obama faces so much hostility, not because of race, but because he's a Democrat.
However, when you think about it, this argument runs the risk of legitimizing the hate speech we've seen over the past few years. It seeks to explain away this vitriol as being little more than disagreement based on policy (i.e., Democrat vs Republican, Liberal vs. Conservative). If it were only that innocent. Ironically, this approach holds similarities to the very type of it's not him, it's the policy excuse of convenience in conservative media. It's an excuse that often lacks consistency and credibility.
Wilmore's response to questions of racism: "Were you alive in the 90s?"
This question is a dodge. It seeks to draw parallels, using any similarity as a one-size-fits-all explanation for the hatred many have shown this President. It's almost as if to say, Hey, they gave Clinton hell and he was a white guy. Or, more cynically, it strikes me as saying Watch it, if it happened to the White man, you can't cry racism.
Sorry, but whether they intended it that way or not, I've got to give The Daily Show an "L" for this one.
Now, let me be clear. I understand that we are talking about social and political satire. It has not escaped me that these are comedians seeking to make light of a very dark subject. So my point is not to judge The Daily Show, Jon Stewart or Larry Wilmore as somehow defending birthers. I recognize that The Daily Show has done great work in the past, shedding light on a host of issues the mainstream media chooses to ignore. I get that.
To be truthful, if anything, this Daily Show sketch has served more as a springing board for this piece on race in politics than the actual target of my disdain. But still, satire or not, the sketch presumably seeks to make a point. And that point - opportunism over racism - is, in my opinion, a dodge we've seen far to often when it comes to race and politics.
To answer our "Black Correspondent's" question, yes, I was alive in the 90s. Admittedly, I was only beginning high school back in '95, but the 90s was a hotbed for racial and social unrest. And it was during this time when I, and presumably millions of other people my age, experienced our introductions into the political and social discourse.
And you know what I remember?
I remember a president who was the subject of many smears in his own right. But, with that being said, I also remember that, despite these smears, the Democratic Party (and yes, most progressives) had Clinton's back the entire time - which is more than I can say for the support shown for President Obama right now (just start at the 2008 primaries and work your way forward).
But, one thing I don't remember about the 90s is anyone asking to see President Clinton's birth certificate. And to the extent some fringe-type might have ever tried, I certainly don't remember a sustained cultural movement, legitimized by a mainstream media's undying infatuation with race-baitors.
There were accusations of unAmerican values back during the 1992 Presidential campaign. You can read more about this here: Anatomy of a Smear. But even those smears were levied at alleged activity by then candidate Clinton, not at some innate quality such as his birth.
And while we're at it, I also don't remember self-described revolutionaries armed with loaded assault rifles standing outside of presidential events. But, can we call that racism?
But, no need to go back to the 90s for race-baiting politics, does anyone remember 2008?
Because I remember a certain presidential candidate, her husband (you know, the former President), and surrogates employing some of the same psst. . . you know he's black, right? strategies that we see today.
You remember, don't you? It was something along the lines of . . .
Obama can't win the white vote.
Obama was raised in a Madrassa.
Of course Obama won South Carolina, look at Jesse Jackson.
Remember what happened to Robert Kennedy? (WTF???? I mean still, WTF)
That list goes on and on.
So no, the Clinton dodge does not apply. Not all political smears are created equal. Some things are best judged on their own merits.
So since the 90s doesn't work, it looks like we have to dig deep. . . real deep into our nation's history for even more false equivalency. Enter President Chester A. Arthur.
Really, now? Seriously? We gotta go all the way back to the 1800s for this?
The Daily Show noted that our 21st President faced a birther issue of his own. History shows President Arthur faced rumors that he was actually born in Canada. Crazy, huh?
But there are differences between Presidents Arthur and Obama that are worth noting. Mainly, as reported in an AP story two years ago, President Arthur never showed documentation of his birth when pressed to do so. Indeed, the AP story says that Arthur's home state, Vermont, didn't even keep track of such records until long after his birth.
On the contrary, President Obama has now revealed his birth certificate, not once, but twice. And yet, despite the overwhelming evidence, it's still not enough for his critics.
And why is this?
Well, black people have been screaming this for years.
uh hmm. . .
say it with me. . .
in unison. . .
sing it if you'd like. . .
It's not about the birth certificate.
It never was and never will be about the birth certificate. That's because it's about racism. That's,
And in a world where racism reinvents itself like a virus, we've traded in our blatant bigotry of generations gone by for a more subtle type of intolerance.
It is a type of racism that is flexible enough to fit a variety of boogeymen. Realize that our failure to deal with race in substantial terms, our nation's weak attempt to deodorize the funk of intolerance and hatred expressed through modern day politics, has yielded a foul fragrance. And this fragrance is only so useful as it successfully masks the even greater stench of our nation's dirty past. It is the "other." Our political "Secret" if you will. . . you know, strong enough for all minorities, but still made for "the Blacks".
So it should come as no surprise that even the most racist KKK member is not dumb enough to shout "NIGGER" when given the spotlight of prime time cable news. But he will go on and on about how the President isn't one of us. He'll go on and on about how we need to take our country back or how this President pals around with terrorists or doesn't see America the way you and I do.
And unlike President Bill Clinton, unlike President Chester A. Arthur, President Obama cannot escape his critics. For as the former saw politics as their tickets to hatred, the latter, our Black President, need no more than to show the color of his skin.
THAT is the difference.
President Clinton can and has traversed some of the most racist parts this country has to offer. And guess what. . . 15-20 years after his presidency, a noticeable amount of those good ole' boys are more than willing to let "Bubba" back into the pack.
It's different when discussing race.
So I guess I'll end where I began. I'll ask the same question: When can we call racism, racism?
We've made a lot of progress, but we've still got a long ways to go. If birtherism doesn't qualify as racism then tell me, what does?