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Why the Obama birtherism lie stays alive

The force behind the racist charge might outlive us all

Writer Isaac J. Bailey penned a splendid column for Politico about birtherism, the absurd claim that President Barack Obama hails from Kenya, not Hawaii, and thus serves as some sort of illegal alien president.

Many Americans of all races and ethnicities deem the charge offensive, but the blade of birtherism thrusts itself especially deep into black psyche. Bailey endeavors to explain why, depicting a rather gaping wound in one emotionally vulnerable paragraph:

“Birtherism means forever being a foreigner in your own country, forever having to prove you are worthy of the air you’ve been blessed to breathe, forever having to get the approval of white men, which can be taken from you in an instant — a reality that dates back to the antebellum period — no matter what you’ve accomplished, no matter how hard you’ve worked, no matter how much you’ve complied with the demands of a world that forever sees you as suspect until proven innocent, an innocence that has to be proven again and again and again in place after place and situation beyond situation.”

Bailey accurately portrays the visceral agony of why birtherism pains many black folk. Some, undoubtedly, would report a different, yet still disturbing reaction. After all, the birther charge, as all mutations of bigotry, can torment people in varying ways.

A related question is what spawned and sustained it. More than 70 percent of registered Republicans, per a recent NBC News/Survey Monkey poll, express doubt about the president’s place of birth. What animates this peculiar obsession? Why do so many whites look at a man so obviously American and deny his citizenship? One can trace the answer, I think, to before the Declaration of Independence.

Seventeenth-century colonial Virginia featured intraracial strife between the ruling white elite with large plantations and poor whites with little to no land and scant political power. Well-to-do colonial Virginians, though, confronted a dilemma: Poor whites outnumbered them and harbored extreme discontent with their plight. The powerful, in an effort to prevent violent discord, offered the powerless a deal they accepted: more influence in a fledgling democracy, slightly more financial security and, most important, white supremacy. This bargain has defined American race relations.

White supremacy explains why leaders of the Populist Party, after the Civil War, failed to persuade poor Southern whites to join an interracial political coalition with blacks. Both groups had a self-interest in joint effort. Poor whites and blacks both were locked into poverty by rich whites who promoted their interests with meager concern for their fellow Americans. The possibility of an improved financial future, however, held less worth than the grand psychic value of white supremacy. Poor whites, accordingly, chose race over pocketbook. Many whites, to this day, particularly those disgruntled with the fruits of their labor, gleefully cling to their belief that no matter the depths of their despair, black folk rest below them on the racial hierarchy.

But white supremacy braces for a potential extinction-level event when a black face becomes the head of state. This black man, Obama, to make matters worse, actually grew up much like them in that he too was raised by whites. Yet, he achieved the greatness many devotees to white supremacy never even imagined for themselves. To add extra insult, integral to his life’s triumphs, his intelligence was gifted to him, in part, by his African father, a Harvard-trained economist. Thus, an essential reason that Obama climbed to the summit, whereas many of his detractors remain stranded at the bottom of the mountain, is the intellect he inherited from his black dad.

For some, this injury, I think, proved unbearable, upsetting their ability to believe the lie that is white supremacy. Their world, simply stated, needed to make sense again. They desired to feel superior to Obama. Declaring that he was not American — no, he was an African charlatan without right to the presidency and therefore inherently their lesser — solved their conundrum.

That all of the evidence contradicts it matters not. It needs to be true, which makes it true. Birtherism was a means to an end. If Obama’s background matched, say, New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker, a descendant of American slaves, they would have concocted some other racist fairy tale to topple an uppity Negro. Birtherism was a symptom, never the disease, which is white supremacy.

This mindset colors other perceptions of the president. Take the accusation that he relies too heavily on his teleprompter. Obama delivers the best, most emotional speeches that have ever delighted many of our ears, rivaled only perhaps by the first lady. This too cannot be tolerated, leading to the laughably odd accusation that he is a contrivance of a teleprompter, a device all recent presidents have used.

Bailey entitled his column “Birtherism Isn’t Going Away.” Partly correct. Obama will recede from the public eye once his term ends. Birtherism will, simultaneously, fade from debate, although never from black folks’ memories. But what gave birtherism life will, in the future, give life to some other horror. It always has.

Until they kick their white supremacy habit, the ghastly ramifications that inevitably arise when white folk overdose on their own supply will forever haunt this land.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at Andscape and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.