Now that Donald Trump has jumped into the faux fray about Obama’s birth certificate, it seems like a good time to define the real issue in this increasingly contentious matter.
As in often the case in conspiracy theories, this one was at least partially inspired, if that’s the right word, by a movie — The Manchurian Candidate. This political thriller gets a good deal of drama from the idea that there could be a stealth candidate who would make a dramatic speech after a shooting, and get elected. Still, there’s more to the birther controversy than that.
Although Trump doesn’t apparently realize it, the issue of the birth certificate is only the beginning of the problems with the birther theory. For example, the only way you can make sense of the birth announcements in the Honolulu paper is to say that some unidentified plotters knew when this bi-racial boy was born, he would be elected president.
And then let’s do something that nobody has apparently done. Let’s consider seriously the idea that Obama was born in the country that would become Kenya. Well, if he was born there, then his mother had to be present. So how did she get there? When did she obtain a passport? Then, too, it was no small task to get from Honolulu to central Africa in 1962. Where did she get the money? Since pregnant women aren’t allowed to fly in their last trimester, she must have gone there considerably in advance of her due date. Where did she stay while waiting to give birth?
And then there’s the really tough question: Why? Why did she leave her home in safe, pleasant Honolulu to give birth in dangerous, unstable Africa? Why did she do this thing that makes no emotional or biographical sense? The only answer is that some unseen, insanely rich cabal of plotters intending to overthrow America hatched this plot decades in advance. As a screenwriter, I can just imagine the way movie executives would greet a script that includes all these points.
So. There are lots of questions that the birthers can’t, don’t, and won’t answer. Yet when you think about it, the inability to answer questions about your beliefs is not exactly unprecedented. There are lots of questions that all of us can’t answer about what we believe. Still, the birthers are clearly agitated about something, and that something is more than simple racism, although that is part of it. I believe that the birthers themselves can’t fully articulate why it seems so wrong to them that Obama is president.
Fortunately, we can find at least the beginnings of an answer in James Loewen’s provocative book Sundown Towns. The odd name comes from the formerly widespread practice of keeping blacks out of certain towns by telling them that they’d better not let the sun go down on them. It’s important to understand that many sundown towns were located as far geographically and culturally from the South as Martinsville Indiana, and Anna, Illinois.
Loewen shows with abundant documentation that many small and middle-sized towns throughout America achieved the status of sundown towns by rigorously excluding blacks, and maintained that status vigorously. They did this in a variety of legal and quasi-legal ways. They passed ordinances about who could live in these towns, and buy property in them, for example. But even in the absence of ordinances, the sheriffs would tell blacks that there was such an ordinance, and threaten to enforce it. Real estate agents colluded with sheriffs and mayors to steer blacks away from sundown towns, too.
Although I don’t know for sure, I strongly suspect that a large number of birthers grew up in sundown towns, or in towns with a very small black population. The thing to remember is that doesn’t make them vicious racists the way Hitler was a vicious racist. What it does mean is that birthers are just not used to seeing blacks in their neighborhoods, and they’re certainly not accustomed to seeing them in their living rooms. But they do see Obama regularly in their living rooms, when he appears on television from time to time, as presidents do. For them, then, he seems out of place; he seems to be violating the natural order of things in their near environment. His presence in the White House and on television seems all the more unacceptable and all the more frustrating to the birthers because they can’t quite say what’s wrong about it
A logical explanation for this violation of the order of things in sundown towns occurred to a few people. Since Obama’s father was Kenyan, so goes the argument, then he must have been born in Kenya. And when people started propounding this theory on television and on the internet, it resonated with a lot of viewers and readers from sundown towns. It explained what they were feeling, and moreover did so in an exciting way. If this were a movie, the bad guys would get their comeuppance in the last ten minutes or so—and that’s what the birthers expect. However, that hasn’t happened, and isn’t likely to happen.
So the birthers will probably be with us for a long time. No evidence, or lack of evidence, about Obama’s birth certificate is going to give the birthers any relief because the controversy about the place of his birth is a red herring. What matters is not where he was born in 1962, but where he lives now. He lives in the White House, which is located in Washington, and for the birthers Washington is a sundown town.