Obama, Partisanship And Racism

Donald Trump talks with reporters at the Pease International Tradeport April 27 in Portsmouth, N.H. AP photo

The elections of November 1868 were run under a congressional Civil War reconstruction plan that enabled newly freed former slaves to vote and hold office. Allied with a minority of Southern whites, blacks joined the party of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, and the Republican Party took control of legislatures throughout the defeated Confederacy.

In his Bancroft Prizewinning Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, historian Eric Foner has written: “Unprecedented challenges confronted the Southern Republicans between 1868 and 1870. Bequeathed few accomplishments and nearly empty treasuries by their predecessors, they faced the devastation of war, the new public responsibilities entailed by emancipation, and the task of consolidating an infant political organization.

“Most of all, both the party and its governments faced a crisis of legitimacy. Ordinarily political parties take for granted the authority of government and the integrity of their foes. Reconstruction’s opponents, however, viewed the new regimes as alien impositions and their black constituency as outside the body politic. For Southern Republicans, as a result, the give-and-take of ‘normal politics’ was superseded by a desperate struggle for political survival.”

A struggle they did not survive. By 1877 white supremacists had “redeemed” all of the former Confederate states for the Democracy. With their military arm, the Ku Klux Klan, they intimidated free blacks out of the South’s voting booths.

Hawaii-born African-American Barack Hussein Obama has faced “a crisis of legitimacy” since that day in January 2009 on which he was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. For a vocal minority of white Americans, a 50th state-born black man with an Islamic name – no matter the vote count of the previous November – had no claim on the nation’s office. He was illegitimate, a bastard president.

Despite assurances from Hawaii’s Republican Gov. Linda Lingle that both Obama’s birth certificate and notices in Honolulu’s two dailies attested to his birth Aug. 4, 1961, in Kapiolani Maternity Hospital, “birthers” continued to assert that the “notification of live birth” provided by the state of Hawaii was insufficient and that Obama was not an American citizen.

The Fox Network, right-wing radio radicals and the lazy mainstream press trying to fill its 24-hour news cycle kept the birther controversy alive. Donald Trump, the frequently bankrupted millionaire and reality show host, pushed the issue into the headlines anew by flirting with a run for the Republican nomination for the presidency based on questioning Obama’s birth certificate and college transcripts.

Two weeks ago Obama sent his lawyer to Honolulu to gain the release of his “long-form birth certificate.” In releasing it to the press, he spoke of his “bemusement” watching the two-and-a-half years of “this kind of silliness.”

It wasn’t silliness. It was partisan politics, the same partisanship that listened to silly people like Sarah Palin who found “death panels” in Obama’s health care reform legislation, the same partisanship that Republicans used in threatening to filibuster practically every proposal the young president made to deal with bank regulation, economic stimulus or healthcare.

And it was racism. By last week, 45 percent of Republicans believed that Obama was not born in the United States, that his Hawaii birth was a conspiracy joined by his parents, state officials, and – who knows – the nurses and attending doctor as well.

Does anyone believe for a moment that 45 percent of either major political party would have questioned the legitimacy of a white man born in Hawaii who had risen to the presidency?

No, this was racism, the same bitter poison that undermined the freedmen who joined the Republican Party in the post-Civil War South. For too many in white America, black remains illegitimate.