Was the Birther Movement Always About Race?

And Donald Trump is happy to capitalize on it, say critics

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The birth certificate is out; the skeptics still aren't satisfied; the rest of the world has rolled its eyes at the whole thing. And now the think pieces are starting to appear: What was the birth certificate issue really about? More specifically--was it ever about anything other than race?

"It is inconceivable that this campaign to portray Mr. Obama as the insidious 'other' would have been conducted against a white president," read an editorial in The New York Times yesterday. "We doubt that the questions about Mr. Obama's birthplace would have taken off if his father had been from Canada rather than Kenya," read a similar editorial at The Washington Post. "Obama, as a politician, is clearly not a radical; he is a center-left pragmatist," wrote David Remnick at The New Yorker Web site yesterday. "The one radical thing about Barack Obama is his race, his name."

USA Today had an item yesterday about a recent psychology study exploring the relationship between racism and birther beliefs. "Does racial prejudice play a role in questions about Barack Obama's citizenship, a topic much in the news given today's birth certificate news conference?" the story begins. "Yes indeed."

Donald Trump, he of the "great relationship with the blacks," has come in for no small amount of vituperation. (This might be expected, since he keeps putting himself at the center of this story.) The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that "it is impossible to miss the racism" informing Trump's accusations against President Obama. Lee Fang at Think Progress quotes Trump calling on Obama to "get off his basketball court" and address gas prices. Fang then adds, "After Trump's claims about Obama's birth certificate were further discredited, he is moving on to even more transparent racist language." Michelle Malkin, otherwise bristling at how quickly she feels liberals have pulled out the race card on birtherism, still feels it necessary to tell Trump that he shouldn't take pride in being called racist, thinking the term confers conservative credentials.

Slate's John Dickerson writes that for Donald Trump, "the overriding issue has always been Donald Trump." But he notes that "Trump has moved his focus to questioning whether Obama was qualified to attend Harvard." Without quite calling Trump the r-word, Dickerson adds, "One of the evils of racism is that it locks in the idea that no matter how well you do, your achievements will never be considered legitimate."

The author Baratunde Thurston, director of digital at The Onion, has released an emotional video in which he places Donald Trump in the same tradition as the white pollworkers who used to force black voters to take literacy tests. Thurston calls Trump "no better than a Klansman, no better than a Bull Connor, no better than an anonymous, privileged white man in the 1950s who, regardless of his position in society, knew his position was higher than that of a common nigger."

One high-profile voice on the left arguing against the straightforward "birther movement = racism" formulation is The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg, who told The Nation that attacks on Obama's legitimacy are "more about identity" than simple skin color. "Obama's erudition," Hertzberg wrote, "his ivy-league-ness, his urbanity, his citizen-of-the-worldness, his foreign-sounding name, his respect for the authority of reason and science, his 'aristocratic' 'aloofness' (all of which I love, of course) are equally or more part of the package."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.