To understand the politics of race and who is and is not considered fully American in today’s politics and society, it is important to understand the way in which President Obama was perceived as something non-American during his time in office. The President was constantly portrayed as not quite American, and the “birther” conspiracy summed up people’s unwillingness to see him as an equal American. The conspiracy centered on a belief that President Obama was not born in the United States and therefore not a citizen and not eligible to be president.
David Sears and Michael Tesler were able to test theories of social response to President Obama’s otherness and analyze the data in their book Obama’s Race. The authors find that people who had less favorable views of black people and less favorable views of Muslims were more likely to support the birther conspiracy and were less likely to favor Candidate Obama in 2008.
Sears and Tesler wrote, “We expected most respondents to say Obama was born in the United States, even those who relied most heavily on Fox News. We were surprised, however, to find that only 21 percent of Fox viewers said that Obama was American-born.” The authors also write, “It looks as if much of the driving force behind the dogged unwillingness of so many to acknowledge that Obama was born in the United States is not just simple partisan opposition to a Democratic president but a general ethnocentric suspicion of an African American president who is also perceived as distinctly ‘other’.”
It is important to note that simply watching Fox News cannot explain the reason why so many people felt that President Obama was an outsider and was possibly not born in the United States. From the data presented by Sears and Tesler, we cannot say that Fox News changed people’s beliefs, or whether people who already harbored feelings of racial resentment watched Fox News to reaffirm their beliefs.
Ultimately, what the research I believe shows us, is that we must be more considerate when we think about what makes someone American. Different groups across this country (across generations, racial groups, education groups, and groups defined by socioeconomic status) will have to accept the fact that American’s are changing demographically, with the nation becoming less white. This means that those groups who have dominated through their whiteness, even if the domination was unconscious or hidden, will have to shift who they understand themselves to be. This puts race in a pivotal role as we decide who will be American moving forward, whether the old order will cary the day, or if we are going to change who we allow to be American and represent American values.
David Sears and Michael Tesler start an important chapter of their book Obama’s Race with a quote from Hillary Clinton’s chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, written in a 2007 memo. The chapter headlined by the quote is titled, “Beyond Black and White” with a subtitle, “Obama as “Other”.” The quote is important because the thoughts and sentiments are still affecting our political system and lives today. Our current president, President Trump, first made a name for himself as a thorn in the side of President Obama by insisting that President Obama was not born in the United States and that he somehow did not belong and should be thought of as “other”. President Trump’s most clear objective was (and still is) to demonstrate that America is for white people who look like him and achieve material success. He vies the rest of the global population, Obama included, as simply “other”.
The quote to lead off the chapter in Sears and Tesler’s book reads, “All of those articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared toward showing his background is diverse, multicultural … it also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited.”
What this quote reveals is a very strong tendency in the United States to think of multiculturalism and multicultural people as somehow not American. For the eight years that President Obama directed the nation, a group of people simply did not believe that he was fundamentally American at his core, and this shaped perceptions and thoughts about who our leaders were, about the direction they pointed the country, and about what people thought was good for society. I remember coming across a statistic that indicated that most black people did not think that President Obama had done enough to help black people, in terms of policy, but that most white people felt that President Obama had done too much to help black people. At a fundamental level I don’t think people were responding to a question about policy, even though the question specifically asked about policy. I believe that people were actually answering a question about whether President Obama matched their ideal vision of an American and was signaling that he was part of their American culture.
People have a tribal nature baked into them that shapes who is viewed as being like them and who is viewed as being the other. In his book The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer quotes Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson in writing, “Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness.” If we continue to think in ways that push people who are not like us or who have deep multicultural roots away from us, then we will risk driving to a place where we are harming others for our own gain and delegitimizing the humanity of people that are different. Our current president has shown a basic tendency toward this type of behavior, but as our country becomes more diverse we will need to shift course and shift what we think of others and what we think of Americans. Without reconciling those two distinctions, we will never be able to embrace democracy in a functional manner.