Asking the Wrong Questions About ‘Birthers’

May 2nd, 2011, by

Talk about a digression. As you well know, President Obama released his long-form birth certificate last week, eclipsing the New Hampshire visit of Donald Trump (‘birther’ extraordinaire and 2012 presidential hopeful) and possibly putting to rest a silly and unfounded conspiracy theory that should have petered out a long time ago.

But as foolish and offensive as the ‘birther’ movement has been, it gained tons of traction with the media. And since the president’s release last week, there has been plenty of commentary calling the ‘birthers’ racist.

And while it’s easy to say that the underlying issue is racism, that’s beside the point and not a very useful discussion according to Phillip Atiba Goff, assistant professor of psychology at UCLA and Executive Director of Research for the Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity.

Goff says that not only should we focus on the consequences of this ugly movement, but in the grander scheme of things, we should also be focused on more important issues, like educational and structural inequality.

Here is an excerpt from our conversation.

THOMPSON: Many people are arguing that this is racism. Is that the case?

GOFF: It’s always difficult to tell what an individual’s motivations are. And I tend to try and stay away from that whenever possible…

When we look at the ‘birther’ movement and particularly Donald Trump’s foray into this, I’m much more concerned about the consequences of this dialogue than whether or not Donald Trump or any other individual is a racist. When we talk about  people being a racist, we’ve already lost the argument… Someone only needs to say ‘I’m not [racist]. I never intended that.’ And because people are motivated to see that and hear that, you let them off the hook.

Barack Obama, who has done just about anything that anyone could ever ask to prove how American he is, how much a part of the American mythology, of self-uplift, of success through perseverance he embodies, and even he has to prove that he is “one of us;” it was emotionally damaging. It was psychologically injurious to a large number of African Americans.

And that’s the consequence I wish that we would focus more on in this whole ‘birther’ debate is that it doesn’t matter whether or not you intended to be racist. There are racially negative consequences to talking about our first African American president as if he doesn’t belong, especially given the preponderance of evidence that this is a silly idea.

When we talk about it, I think it does us good to talk about it in terms of how racially damaging it is both to individuals who feel injured by it and for our capacity to have an adult conversation about all the work that still needs to be done to ensure racial equity.

THOMPSON: So what’s next?

GOFF: We do ourselves a disservice when we fixate on the flashy headlines. I would prefer to talk about what we see in terms of the incarceration rates. I would prefer to talk about the 80 percent of incarcerated women who are also mothers and what that’s doing to a generation and now multiple generations of children. I would prefer to talk about wealth inequalities, educational inequalities, structural inequalities that we seem to lack the political will to address… as opposed to fixating on Donald Trump, who has yet, in my mind, to articulate a single serious thought about how to move America forward, much less a single useful thought about race.

Last modified: May 25, 2011 at 6:12 pm