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ARTICLES

Our Foreign President Barack Obama: The Racial Logics of Birther Discourses

Pages 86-107 | Published online: 02 Apr 2015

Abstract

This essay centers race in taking serious an often-dismissed movement, the Birthers, who question Barack Obama's citizenship and deem him as an illegitimate president. Through a historical and relational lens, I argue that the Birther rhetoric of constitutional protection relies on racial logics used in previous discourses about foreignness to delineate acceptable citizenship for the presidency and mark Obama as untrustworthy. By analyzing the Birthers.org website and two Birther movement-associated media figures, Orly Taitz and Donald Trump, Birther discourses manipulate rationality, reinforce a White racial state, and activate anxieties over an increasingly multi-racial and global society.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Dr. Dreama Moon and Dr. Michelle Holling for their guidance through the editing process. Thank you also to Dr. Natalie Fixmer-Oraiz, Dr. Alyssa Samek, Dr. Peter Campbell, Yaejoon Kwon, Talitha Matlin, Laura Stengrim, Dr. Mattea Garcia, and the anonymous reviewers of this article for their insightful comments and helpful suggestions. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Rhetoric Society of America Bi-ennial conference in 2012. Thank you to the CSUSM's College of Humanities, Arts, Behavioral & Social Sciences Faculty Development grant for travel funds for this research.

Notes

[1] The first rumors regarding Obama's place of birth supposedly arose from disgruntled Hilary Clinton supporters during her 2008 presidential bid (Smith & Tau, Citation2011). Birther discourses continued despite President Obama releasing a “certification of live birth” document, which is considered legally sufficient evidence of birth in Hawai’i (CNN, Citation2011).

[2] The non-partisan Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.org confirmed the validity of President Obama's birth certificate.

[3] The interview was filmed the same day President Obama released the long-form birth certificate but aired afterwards.

[4] Enck-Wanzer (Citation2011) noted that Tea Partiers often expressed nativist and racial anxieties with their discontent. Birther discourses radically extend this anxiety.

[5] Kim (Citation1999) found that valorization was in relation to Blacks and civic ostracism was in relation to Whites.

[6] One major change is that the homepage focuses on Senator Ted Cruz's lack of natural-born citizenship as of November 2014.

[7] WorldNetDaily (www.wnd.com) is also a major website for Birther movement. Its editor, Joseph Farah, produced a documentary, A Question of Eligibility, about Obama's citizenship.

[8] Critical Race theorists argue the legal system of the United States is inherently steeped in White supremacy. Thus, taking a strict interpretation of the Constitution would lead to replicating White supremacist institutions and laws. See Bell (Citation1995), Delgado (Citation1989), and Delgado and Stefancic (Citation2001).

[9] According to FactCheck.org, Obama was a citizen of both the United States and United Kingdom at the time of his birth (Miller, Citation2009). Since Kenya was a colony of Great Britain, his father passed on British citizenship to Obama. After Kenyan independence, Obama's U.K citizenship was converted to Kenyan citizenship, which expired when he turned 23 years old (Miller, Citation2009).

[10] Birther rhetoric could be characterized as mirroring Red Scare rhetoric that activates fear about Communist spies infiltrating the United States. Although this characterization helps us understand the paranoid aspects of Birther rhetoric, this perspective too readily dismisses its racial logics.

[11] The Birther website similarly rhetorically aligns Obama with his Indonesia born half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng (Birthers, “FAQs”). Obama and Soetoro-Ng share the same type of document, the Certification of Live Birth. But Soetoro-Ng is confirmed in not having “natural-born citizenship.” Hence, if Obama is not disclosing his official birth certificate, it is plausible that he does not have natural-born citizenship.

[12] Although Howell (Citation2012) explained the resonance of the conspiratorial Birther rhetoric as means to express their dissatisfaction and scapegoating, it does not foreground the racial logic of the Birthers and their anxieties.

[13] Lee attributes his treatment to his Chinese background. He was acquitted of all accounts except for retention of national defense information (something as commonplace as not securing information on a flash drive) and was awarded a $1.6 million dollar settlement from the U.S. Government and media institutions as part of a civil suit.

[14] This is similar to the treatment Chinese Americans received during the 1996 Campaign Finance Reform, where accusations of Chinese money from abroad into the U.S. Democratic fund-raising and U.S. policy (Wang, Citation1998).

[15] This is also in part due to the history of U.S. immigration policies—such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1908 Gentleman's Agreement, the 1922 Cable Act, the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, and the 1952 Walter-McCarran Act—that barred the vast majority of Asian immigrants until the latter part of the twentieth century.

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