Dispelling Donald Trump’s birther charges that Barack Obama is foreign-born, the president released his long-form birth certificate Wednesday. Politifact, the fact-checking site for politics, says its article about the issue (with a link to the certification of live birth) is the most popular item that it has ever published. The certificate and its release prove two things most people should already know: Obama is an American. And, as PBS host Tavis Smiley put it to MSNBC, the 2012 presidential race is shaping up to be “the ugliest, the nastiest, the most divisive, and the most racist in the history of this Republic.”
In an attempt to prove Smiley right, Trump is now questioning the president’s “qualifications” for having attended Ivy League universities. “I heard he was a terrible student, terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?” Trump said in an interview with The Associated Press. Trump, who is toying with running for the Republican presidential nomination, offered no proof for his claim of Obama’s academic incompetence but said he would continue to investigate—whatever that means.
People of color know exactly what this means. What Trump is saying—without actually saying it—is that Obama was not admitted to Columbia and Harvard based on merit, but only because he is part black. As with any post-racial attack—appealing to racists but also appealing to deniability—Trump’s latest complaint feeds directly into our nation’s history of racism and racist entitlement. By questioning Obama’s qualifications and refusing to provide an answer, Trump is saying that people of color are taking seats in prestigious colleges and universities that they can’t possibly earn, taking up space and resources in a nation in which they don’t belong. Such comments cling to the ideas that being a person of color clouds one’s reason and judgment and that privilege, prestige, citizenship and education belong solely to white people. Ironically, Trump missed the reports from one of the president’s onetime colleagues on the board of editors of the Harvard Law Review that Obama did not check the box identifying himself as a minority member on his law school application.
But whether the president did or did not identify himself racially on his university applications is not really the issue, at least for those of us who aren’t interested in playing along with Trump’s trumped-up racism. What’s really at stake is the idea that people of color cannot be qualified for the presidency because they aren’t qualified for anything of importance—and that their lack of qualification hinges on the simple fact that they are people of color. This belief in people of color as intellectual and moral degenerates, coupled with demographic information supported by the latest census stating that Asians, Latinos, multiracials and African-Americans are increasing in numbers, is fueling fears that whites are a besieged group that needs to “take back America.”
Equally troubling is that many in the mainstream media choose not to expose such angry race-talk for what it is—the same old racism dressed up in one of Trump’s expensive suits. For instance, Dan Farber, the editor in chief of CBS News, tried to explain Trump’s racist, anti-affirmative-action charges as part of an effort to expose the president as an untrustworthy “cipher [who] cannot be trusted and is concealing a dark secret.” That’s simply untrue. And, as Ari Melber put it to The Nation, “I don’t see Trump saying that the President of the United States is a cipher—a zero or nonentity—but rather that back in the day, Obama was not good enough to get into college without a racial boost.” Or, take the renowned journalist Hendrik Hertzberg, who in this week’s edition of The New Yorker proposed that Trump is the “joke candidate of the present moment,” making charges that could be racist in nature but that were best interpreted in light of the GOP’s strategy of denying well-known facts such as global warming.
Thankfully, there are those who don’t find Trump funny and who choose to confront racism directly. And reports that call out racism when it rears its ugly head take the important first step in eradicating it once and for all: the willingness to engage in open, honest dialogue. Coincidentally, such dialogue is something the president has been urging us all to initiate since before he was elected in 2008. Maybe now we can finally begin the conversation.