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The Shifting Shapes of Birtherism

Natural Born Racism

by DEVIN BURGHARD

Now that President Obama has attempted to quell the surge of birtherism by providing a copy of his oft-requested long form-birth certificate, will that satisfy the birthers? Will they go away now?

Nope.

Long before President Obama released his long-form birth certificate, Tea Party leaders and other birthers had already concocted outlandish new twists on birther racism. Clumsily forged Kenyan birth certificates, failed lawsuits, cries of conspiracy, and the cottage industry of birther books and videos have popped up in the last few years. Indeed, leading birther activists have invented an incomprehensible array of bogus arguments and convinced themselves that a black man could not possibly be president of the United States. Now, they are not going down without a fight.

Why Now?

So, why did the president release the long form birth certificate now?

The success that real estate mogul and reality show host Donald Trump had while popularizing the birther cause was undoubtedly a factor. Trump gave a mainstream megaphone to the so-called research of Joe Farah and his birther crew at the far-right website WorldNetDaily.

Moreover, recent polls show that birtherism has reached the mainstream. An April 21 New York Times poll indicated that, "A plurality of Republican voters, 47 percent, said they believed Mr. Obama, who was born in Hawaii, was born in another country; 22 percent said they did not know where he was born, and 32 percent said they believed he was born in the United States." Another recent study by the University of Washington’s Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality found that only 55 percent of "mainstream conservatives" believed the information on President Obama’s certificate of live birth from Hawaii, with only 40 percent of "Tea Party conservatives" believing it.

The president’s campaign was possibly concerned about the possibility of "Swift Boating" on this issue. The man behind the lies that sunk John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, Jerome Corsi, the author of Unfit for Command: Swift Vote Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, has a new book coming out in a few weeks.

Published by WorldNetDaily Press, Corsi’s newest book, Where’s the Birth Certificate?: The Case that Barack Obama is not Eligible to be President, regurgitates many of the birther conspiracy theories. As IREHR noted in Tea Party Nationalism, in 2008 Corsi and Tim Bueler (now of the 1776 Tea Party) got kicked out of Kenya pursuing bogus claims.

It’s widely believed that the lack of a rapid and concerted response to the charges in Unfit for Command doomed the Kerry campaign, and the birth certificate response is likely an indicator that the Obama team is moving into a more aggressive campaign mode.

Or they could just be getting tired of the "sideshows and carnival barkers."

Tea Party Response to the Release

There are those who simply won’t be satisfied, no matter what documentation is provided. "If Obama’s goals were to quiet things down with the release of his birth certificate, it isn’t going to happen," Tea Party Nation founder and birther devotee Judson Phillips explained in an email to supporters.

Phillips was one of the quickest deniers, trying to cast doubt on the authenticity of the document within hours of the birth certificate release. "Already, there are stories out in the Internet that the birth certificate released is a fake," he wrote.

Phillips wasn’t the only one. Pam Geller, the Tea Party’s favorite Islamophobe was given time on Fox Business News to repeat her assertion that Obama’s short form certificate of live birth is a "forgery" and to poke at a copy of the long form birth certificate.

Steve Eichler, the executive director of the 1776 Tea Party (aka TeaParty.org), chimed in, "Obama believes he had to present something about his BC [birth certificate], therefore a phony certificate was created and displayed as the real thing. The bulk of Americans are trusting people and want to believe the document is true and therefore, they want to put it behind them. Public opinion has shifted away from the BC question, exactly what Obama wanted to happen."

Echoing the comments about the birth certificate being a forgery, Darla Dawald, national coordinator for the Patriot Action Network (the Tea Party group formerly known as ResistNet) posted a conspiracy video and claimed "The ‘copy’ the White House released is not a copy. It is manufactured."

Appearing on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, birther queen Orly Taitz (a Tea Party Nation member), ducked O’Donnell’s repeated requests for her to apologize for her accusations about Obama’s birth certificate, using the airtime instead to roll out her new conspiracy about Obama’s Selective Service registration.

On the April 27 edition of the Tea Party Patriots Radio Brazen Three show, host Shelby Blakely took two approaches to the birther issue. On the one hand, she tried to steer clear, saying "Whether or not it’s true, it’s not tactically wise." Yet just a moment later, she couldn’t help herself and encouraged the birthers, "I kinda gotta congratulate Donald Trump on getting him to do this, because obviously if Donald Trump hadn’t brought it up it never would have happened. And I also do applaud Donald Trump for saying ‘great, now let’s move on the college records.’" Officially, Tea Party Patriots avoided the subject, while letting birtherism run rampant in their local chapters.

Foreshadowing where the birthers are headed as the 2012 campaign draws near was, Joseph Farah, head of the leading birther website WorldNetDaily, "there are still dozens of other questions concerning this question of eligibility that need to be resolved to assure what has become a very skeptical public concerning Barack Obama’s parentage, his adoption, his citizenship status throughout his life and why he continues to cultivate a culture of secrecy around his life."

In addition to those still clinging to long-form racism, Farah’s comments hints at three other distinct strands of birther conspiracy theories making the rounds. First, that President Obama’s father, Barack Obama, Sr. being from Kenya could not make Obama a natural born citizen. Second, that Obama somehow lost his citizenship when he was adopted by an Indonesian man and moved to Indonesia as a child. Third, that someone else is actually Barack Obama’s father.

Beyond the Birth Certificate – "Natural Born" Racism

The next wave of birther attacks will likely be even more insidious than the birth certificate harangues, particularly since they fuse doubts about Obama’s "American-ness" with sexism and racist stereotypes about black parenthood.

The argument goes something like this: President Obama’s father, Barack Obama, Sr. was from Kenya. He was not a citizen of the United States; therefore he could not transfer U.S. natural born citizen rights to his son. According to this line of argument, natural born citizenship stems from the father, and goes only to "the blood offspring of a father who was at the time of birth, a legal U.S. citizen."

The short version: Obama’s dad was African, so he can’t be president.

Such an exclusive definition of "natural born" citizenship asks believers to forget about the fact that his mother was, in fact, a US citizen, that he was born in the United States, and that the 14th Amendment undeniably grants birthright citizenship to children born in the United States. This spurious theory is not grounded in American jurisprudence, Constitutional scholarship, common law, or our founding documents. Instead, such an interpretation is drawn upon a bad translation of a Swiss jurist who died twenty years before the Constitution was drafted.

Birthers have been laying the groundwork for this line of attack for almost as long as they’ve been shouting for a copy of the birth certificate. And this brand of racism is circulating in Tea Party circles. Just two weeks ago, a far-right group known as the US Patriots Union announced the launch of a national billboard and ad campaign with this email.

Forget "where’s the birth certificate" The proper question is – WHO’S YOUR DADDY???Trump is asking the wrong question, which is why Obama is not worried. If he can establish that natural born is based upon whether or not he was born a native of Hawaii, he will come up with a Hawaiian birth certificate if he has to draw it himself in crayon.??That will only prove that he was born in Hawaii. It will not prove that he is a natural born citizen eligible for the office of President, because natural born is based on the bloodline of his father, Barack Hussein Obama I, who was never a citizen of the United States and cannot therefore, transfer U.S. natural born citizen rights to his offspring.

Pam Stout, the Idaho coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, forwarded the email announcing the Patriots Union "Who’s Your Daddy?" campaign to supporters with a personal note atop it, "Interesting. If we believe in ‘Original Intent’ then where he is born is moot."

Some Tea Partiers see a "gotcha!" moment in the birth certificate. "His birth certificate shows his father was born in Kenya. He is not a natural born citizen. Get him out!" noted a Tea Partier from Staten Island. It took more than two years to prepare, but this form of birtherism 2.0 is becoming all-too-common in the Tea Party world.

Obama – the Indonesian

Back in October 2010, IREHR reported that Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips had joined the birther ranks. Rather than join those who claim the President Obama is not a natural-born American, Phillips promoted his peculiar theory as to why he thinks that President Obama is ineligible to hold the office. Phillips brand of "birtherism" weaves another layer of xenophobia into this already racially-charged discourse on citizenship.

In an article on the TPN website entitled, "The Birth Certificate of Barack Obama," Phillips writes, "Is Obama really an American citizen, as all of the folks hitting the eligibility question ask? By birth, probably, but there is a curve ball. As a child, his mother married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian, who then adopted Obama and they moved to Indonesia. The law in effect at the time stated that if an American child was adopted by a citizen of another country and moved to that country, the child lost its American citizenship. The child could regain its citizenship by applying to an American Embassy at age 18 but would only be treated as a naturalized citizen."

Although Phillips had been coy about the topic until then, his public embrace of the birther position should come as no surprise. As IREHR reported in February 2010, at the Tea Party Nation Convention in Nashville, Phillips introduced WorldNetDaily’s Joseph Farah as the Friday evening keynote speaker. Farah spent much of his speech cooking up a Biblical basis for his obsession with Obama’s birth certificate.

Obama’s Dad

Not content with the other birther racism variants, Jack Cashill, the Kansas City-area WorldNetDaily columnist who’s written the birther book Deconstructing Obama, tries to cast doubt on Obama’s father. Cashill makes the argument that "given the available evidence, including the fact that some evidence has been strategically withheld, one can infer that Obama likely was born in Hawaii but that Ann Dunham did not give birth to Barack Obama Sr.’s child on August 4, 1961."

Pam Geller, the New York-based anti-Muslim activist who publishes the website Atlas Shrugs, contends that Barack Obama is actually the illegitimate child of Malcolm X. She’s called President Obama a "third worlder and a coward" who’s "appeas[ing] his Islamic overlords." She has perpetuated the lie that Obama is Muslim, repeatedly referring to him as "the Muslim president."

This question of Obama’s paternity has nothing to do with his qualification to serve as president. Instead, it’s about trying to create a cloud of illegitimacy around the president by again going after his black parent.

The continued morphing of the birther arguments are a sign that this problem will not go away on its own. It requires a concerted effort by people of good will to re-establish that such racially-charged conspiracies are beyond the bounds of acceptable political discourse.

DEVIN BURGHARD is vp of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, based in Kansas.