After what seemed like interminable, passive silence– and even the perception that releasing his long-form birth certificate was a form of defeat– President Obama finally addressed Donald Trump at the Correspondents’ Dinner. It was classic Obama jiu-jitsu: I realized he was waiting for the right opportunity to strike back, and then he did so with an impossible mix of wit, aggression, and class. I was so taken with the way in which the Master Tactician delivered his message that my wife had to remind me to breathe during his speech.
You’d think that I’d be in complete agreement with those who viewed Trump’s birther accusations as a new low point in American Politics. Even members of the press expressed remorse at covering Trump’s missives, regretting that they were somehow contributing to their legitimization. Yet in this case, I’m glad that the birther controversy got so much media attention. Over the course of this controversy, you see, public opinion began to shift in a critically important way.
I’m not referring to public opinion about Donald Trump. Rather I’m referring to public opinion with respect to the role of racism in perceptions of Barack Obama. Leading up to the Correspondents’ Dinner, several outlets ran prominent stories that explored how accusations of Obama as “foreign” and “not one of us” may actually reflect a coded or hidden type of racism (see e.g., this post by Fareed Zakaria). While these are powerful arguments, in this blog and this blog I explore the difficulty of using individual examples (e.g., reactions to Lebron James, or to Yoko Ono, or to Obama) as instances of discrimination. This is because individual examples are, by nature, neither definitive nor systematic, and can often be explained in other ways.
And yet, through Trump’s involvement, the birther controversy somehow became the example that proved the point.
Just the other day, my colleague Sam Gaertner sent me a paper he just published with Eric Hehman and Jack Dovidio in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. These colleagues found that when evaluating President Obama, White’s levels of racial prejudice was directly related to perceptions of Obama as un-American, which in turn predicted ratings of poor performance. These relationships were not evident for perceptions of Vice President Biden, which underscores the idea that the President’s race is a strong factor driving perceptions of his being “un-American.” I was going to blog about it– and then I found out USA today had already covered it (you can read that coverage here). By now, even David Letterman seems convinced of the relationship between racism and the over-persistence of calls for proof of citizenship from Obama. In short, the idea has gained much wider traction than even a few weeks ago.
While the rhetoric around Obama’s legitimacy as an American citizen has been difficult, I feel we are stronger as a nation because of this incident. It seems that now, the public is more willing to accept that we are not, in fact, post-racial, as was so fervently claimed following the election of Obama. But even more importantly, it seems we are more open to the notion that discrimination can be manifested in subtle, cloaked ways.
The point here is not to declare whether Trump is in fact racist or not. Instead, the point is that, from this controversy, the nation has come closer to recognizing and understanding the concept of symbolic prejudice. It’s akin to when people might say, “It’s not that I’m racist, it’s just that the dresses of those gypsies are too provocative,” or “I don’t have anything against Mexicans– but that Mariachi music is just so ugly.” In this case, the insistence by some that Obama is not “one of us” is a symbolic form of prejudice. It’s a fine line between interpreting these statements as either pragmatic or prejudiced, but the birther controversy has given widespread recognition to the second possibility.
And this recognition is an important step in addressing continuing differences in the standards to which people of different races and ethnicities are held to in this country.
Cross-posted from Psychology Today; Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.