It began early in the Obama campaign. The way it went was this: Obama would make predictions about his opponents and insinuate their criticism of him would inevitably have racist roots (they’ll say “he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills;” “and did I mention he’s black?”).
This acted as a signal to supporters—as if they needed urging—that criticism of Obama was to be interpreted as racist. Obama himself would stay serenely above the fray, the post-racial healer, and the attack dogs would attack.
Whether or not those playing the race card actually believed their own charges, or whether they just figured the approach would be strategically effective in both demonizing the opposition and silencing it through fear of being called racist, it all worked pretty well for quite a while. Early opponents Hillary Clinton and then John McCain were effectively neutered by it, the “first black president” Bill Clinton was enraged, and the whole ploy helped Obama ride the tide of hope and change to power.
By now, though it’s gotten pretty old. After a while the American people began to wonder whether any criticism could be mounted against Obama without triggering the old “racist” canard.
Of course there are still some racists in America, in both parties. But just as surely, the vast majority of the criticism of Obama comes from disagreement with his policies, well-earned distrust of his word, and dislike for his much-displayed narcissism. To notice those things and comment on them is to treat him as what he is: a human being to be judged on his merits or lack thereof, not a specially favored, criticism-exempt member of a minority group.
The birther controversy was a great gift to those crying “racism,” because it allowed them to revive the “racist” charges against those who doubted Obama’s American birth, or those who merely wanted him to document it (as others before him have had to do—the very white but Panama-Canal-born John McCain, for example, a fact that the anti-birthers conveniently ignore).
Today the NY Times offers its typically sneering and dismissive, mildly Orwellian take on the matter:
With sardonic resignation, President Obama, an eminently rational man, stared directly into political irrationality on Wednesday and released his birth certificate to history…It was particularly galling to us that it was in answer to a baseless attack with heavy racial undertones…the birther question was never really about citizenship; it was simply a proxy for those who never accepted the president’s legitimacy, for a toxic mix of reasons involving ideology, deep political anger and, most insidious of all, race. It was originally promulgated by fringe figures of the radical right, but mainstream Republican leaders allowed it to simmer to satisfy those who are inflamed by Mr. Obama’s presence in the White House.
Actually, it was originally promulgated by the Clinton camp, but why should the Times care about history or veracity in this particular matter when it cares so little about it in general? Besides, what is irrational about asking Obama to produce a long form birth certificate, and what is “eminently rational” about his failing to do so all these years when he could have scotched the controversy long ago?
Speaking of rationality—you may ask why I still pay any attention at all to the NY Times at this point. Well, it’s for a number of reasons, chief among them the fact that I still know a lot of people who consider it the final word on what’s happening in the world. Another is that when I was growing up the Times was the newspaper of record, and “all the news that’s fit to print” was something I actually believed.
What can I say; I was a child. Looking back, I don’t think the Times was ever what I was told it was or what I imagined it to be. But my feeling of betrayal and disillusionment is still there.