Whose President Was He?
Volume 3, Number 2 (January/February 2016) [The Obama Issue]
Michael Eric Dyson, Professor of Sociology
Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
Barack Obama brushed aside the critics who hated him for his skin color—but failed to see the racial confrontation they foretold.
“If I spent all my time thinking about it, I’d be paralyzed,” Barack Obama told me. “And frankly, the voters would justifiably say, ‘I need somebody who’s focused on giving me a job, not whether his feelings are hurt.’”
We were sitting in the Oval Office in the summer of 2010, and I had asked the president about the persistence, since the early days of his 2008 campaign, of viciously racist attacks against him. Millions of ordinary white citizens and right-wing critics didn’t cotton to our first black president’s chutzpah in capturing the highest office in the land—and they have been unleashing venom ever since. Signs at early protests spoke volumes: “Obama’s Plan: White Slavery” and “The American Taxpayers Are the Jews for Obama’s Ovens.” Some played on racist stereotypes: “Obama: What You Talkin’ About, Willis? Spend My Money.” Others tagged him “Traitor to the Constitution” and “Sambo,” or played on his ancestral homeland: “Ken-ya Trust Obama?”
This last message was, of course, a hallmark of the birthers, who formalized racist attacks into a movement by claiming that Obama, despite his Hawaiian birth certificate, was born in Kenya—or that he was really a citizen of Indonesia, or that he had dual British and American citizenship at birth. The sick attempt to paint Obama as un-American—a closet socialist, a secret Muslim and a hater of democracy, no less—didn’t stop there, echoing over the years in the feverish rantings of figures like Dinesh D’Souza, who claimed Obama was motivated by “an inherited rage” against American wealth and power from his anti-colonialist Kenyan father. On TV, Glenn Beck asserted that Obama had “a deep-seated hatred for white people,” while Rush Limbaugh spewed a steady stream of invective on his radio show, from playing a song dubbed “Barack the Magic Negro” to claiming that Obama wanted Americans to get Ebola as payback for slavery. The most infamous birther, Donald Trump, questioned, without basis, not just Obama’s birth certificate, but his college transcript and whether he had truly deserved a spot at Harvard Law School…
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