Bringing Birthers Into the Fold

In November of 2008, as I listened to a close friend relay her father's stories of Jim Crow segregation as tears welled up in her eyes, I was reminded of a debate I'd had a year prior. I couldn't believe that many months ago I'd argued, with the certainty I felt a lifetime of racist slights had entitled me to, that there was no way a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could be elected president of the United States. I smiled as I sent a conciliatory text -- "Well, I was wrong."

Many, it seems, were still not willing to concede defeat. And I'm not referring to orange-faced opportunists, because at times like this even they recognize the limitations of their methods, as they look in the mirror to find someone quite petty and small. Instead, I'd like to address the 43 percent of poll respondents who claimed to be certain that Obama wasn't born in the United States or uncertain that he was. Gary Langer argues that these people were using a survey as "an expression of antipathy". I have a slightly different take.

Many Americans, perhaps even 43 percent of them, have the vague sense that their nation is being overrun with immigrants. Minorities with funny names are coming to their country, thriving in their workplaces, snatching the coveted spots at their most prized universities. And now, one is president. And how convenient that, embedded in America's founding document, there exists an arcane technicality they can use to justify their passionate pursuit. People aren't pointing at the birther issue to rephrase their hatred of the president. They're pointing at the Constitution to hide their xenophobia.

Some claim that this couched racism is evidence of how little we've progressed. I'd argue precisely the opposite. As the daughter of someone who once had rocks and racial epithets hurled at him by white children, I believe it is indicative of how far we've come that people would rather be labeled morons and conspiracy theorists than racists or xenophobes. And it is understandable, I think, to find a loud foreign accent to be more grating than a loud American one. It is understandable to return to your hometown and find the signs in strange languages to be disconcerting. It is understandable to be confused when people who seem so unlike you are flourishing here, where you grew up, particularly in dire economic times. And it is understandable to look at all of this unfamiliarity and feel a little bit scared.

But there are honest, productive ways to handle those feelings. (And there are, of course, ways not to.) Because understandable doesn't mean legitimate. During his Correspondents' Dinner speech, Seth Meyers remarked that "nothing is more depressing about politics than the fact that adult is now a compliment." We are not children. We have the ability, we have the responsibility, to examine our instincts and question them. And we are capable of empathy. We might look outward and find people who are not so unlike us after all, who are lonely and afraid and want nothing more than children who are neither. Or we might look inward and find more hatred than we'd be proud to admit. We can scrutinize our ideas to confront our beliefs, or we can use our ideas to avoid them.

For those who choose to do the latter, the cost to the national dialogue is high, but the personal cost is as well. Because as moments of great historical import seemingly propel the rest of us forward, they will be left more bitter and alienated than when they began. They will feel foolish as they're easily proven wrong. And worst, as the dust settles and everyone else prepares to move on, they will find that their anger hasn't gone anywhere.

It may be a sign of progress that "racist" is now a dirty word, because outright racism is no longer a tenable, influential position that can hold all of us back. Yet we all have the responsibility to constantly question ourselves, exhausting as it may be. This includes those of us who, because of our background, upbringing, and the totality of factors beyond our control that have shaped our outlook, instinctively sympathize with the accented voice or the unfamiliar minority over the narrow-minded bigot. And we have the capacity for empathy as well, particularly with people who own up to their intolerance in the context of a genuine desire to change. Because harder still than admitting a prediction you made was inaccurate is admitting a prejudice you held was immoral. But saying you were wrong is often the first step toward making things right.