The Racist Roots of “Birtherism”

On Wednesday, President Obama released his long-form birth certificate. Of course, the document confirms that he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii as those in the reality-based community have known for some years now. Yet, this faux controversy has been taken to new depths of media attention with the recent addition of Donald Trump to the mix of Tea Party conspiracy theorists, whom President Obama did not call by name, but referred to as part of a panoply of “sideshows and carnival barkers” that distract the nation’s attention from the real issues. The comparison between Trump and P.T. Barnum is an apt one, but it misses the deeply racist roots of “birtherism.”

How is the call for President Obama’s birth certificate racist? No one breaks it down better than Goldie Taylor, contributing editor at The Grio, in this short video (4:13) featured on The Rachel Maddow Show (apologies for the ad at the beginning):

Taylor is eloquent in her description of her great, great grandfather’s encounter with a white power structure in 1899 and weaves that into the present-day call for President Obama to demonstrate his legitimate right to hold the highest office in the country.

You can read the full text of Taylor’s commentary here.

White Nationalism and the Tea Party

The NAACP recently released a Special Report on Tea Party Nationalism, which addresses the overlap and interconnectedness between white nationalist hate groups and the various Tea Party groups that are sprouting like bad weeds across the U.S. As if to highlight this connection, David Duke, former KKK leader, early Internet adopter for the cause of white supremacy, and one-time candidate for Louisiana governor, has released a video addressing the Tea Party.

The report, written by Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, is just 80 pages, 9 chapters and includes 17 figures and maps. It’s in Chapter 8, “Racism, Anti-Semitism, and the Militia Impulse,” that the authors address the link to overt racists such as Duke, a connection that many Tea Partiers vigorously deny. In this chapter, the authors write:

“In preparation for Tea Party protests held on July 4, 2009, national socialists and other white supremacists created a discussion thread on, the largest and most widely accessed of the many white nationalist websites.216 While highlighting the distinction between themselves and the majority of Tea Partiers who were not self-conscious about their own racism, one person argued, ‘We need a relevant transitional envelop-pushing flyer for the masses. Take these Tea Party Americans by the hand and help them go from crawling to standing independently and then walking towards racialism.’ “(p.60)

This quote highlights the use of the Internet by white nationalists who see the Tea Party as an opportunity for “walking Tea Party Americans…towards racialism.” And, this seems to be the general take in the report, that the Tea Party includes some white nationalists, but is mainly seen as an opportunity for those in the white nationalist movement. The authors take this stance with regard to Duke, as well. The video linked to above appears to have been around awhile, as the authors refer to it in the NAACP report.

David Duke’s embrace of the Tea Parties reveals less about the Tea Parties than it serves as a reminder of the former Klansmen’s never-ending opportunism. He used the Internet to broadcast a ten minute video speech, “Message to the Tea Party.” Duke began the “message” by paying homage to the Tea Parties and the “Founding Fathers,” and ended with his usual roundhouse attack on “the Zionists” (meaning Jews). Over the decades Duke has switched organizational allegiances as new openings emerged for him, but he never abandoned his core national socialist ideology.
“Most recently, Duke had spent time flitting across the globe: In France, Duke had his picture taken with Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant Front National. In Russia, he turned a 1995 meeting with Zhirinovsky into a spot at a 2002 “anti-Zionist” conference in Moscow. In November of that year, he spoke at a meeting in Bahrain. He reappeared in Iran in 2006 for a Holocaust denial conference where he thanked President Ahmadinejad for his “courage” and “foresight.” And in 2009, the once and future Republican, David Duke, was unceremoniously expelled from the Czech Republic (although the charges were later dropped.)
Duke’s announcement that he will use a year-long speaking tour to gauge potential support for another campaign in the Republican presidential primaries (in 2012) should not be understood as anything more than a declaration of his perennial search for contributions from new followers. He is quite unlikely to repeat anything near the successes he has had in the past, when he won a majority of white voters in two statewide Louisiana elections. It is, however, one more sign that hardcore white nationalists regard the Tea Party movement as a reservoir of racists, and as potential supporters of a more ideologically defined white nationalism.
The actions of the Council of Conservative Citizens, the posters and other white nationalists need be understood, in aggregate, as one measure, among many, of the Tea Party movement’s political characteristics. Together they point to a truth many Tea Party leaders will not want to acknowledge.” (p.62)

This is the cautious tone of analysis taken throughout the report. The Tea Party is dangerous for the way that it appeals to white nationalists and for what it could become, but less so for what it is now. Here’s is another passage from the report which illustrates this point:

“Despite the fact that Tea Partiers sometimes dress in the costumes of 18th century Americans, wave the Gadsden flag and claim that the United States Constitution should be the divining rod of all legislative policies, theirs is an American nationalism that does not always include all Americans. It is a nationalism that excludes those deemed not to be “real Americans;” including the native-born children of undocumented immigrants (often despised as “anchor babies”), socialists, Moslems, and those not deemed to fit within a “Christian nation.” The “common welfare” of the constitution’s preamble does not complicate their ideas about individual liberty. This form of nationalism harkens back to the America first ideology of Father Coughlin. As the Confederate battle flags, witch doctor caricatures and demeaning discourse suggest, a bright white line of racism threads through this nationalism. Yet, it is not a full-fledged variety of white nationalism. It is as inchoate as it is super-patriotic. It is possibly an embryo of what it might yet become.” (p.11)

The rise of the Tea Party, with its embryonic white nationalism and the racism, antisemitism and xenophobia of videos like David Duke’s, are political trends that people committed to racial justice should watch closely.

~ This is re-posted from the archive. It was originally posted on October 24, 2010.

White Women, Race Matters (Pt.1)

White women are at the forefront of the Tea Party, a political movement that’s trying to move American backward on race and civil rights.   Sarah Palin, former Vice Presidential candidate, half-term governor of Alaska and likely presidential candidate in 2012, is the charismatic leader of the Tea Party movement, if not the official head of it.  Palin has a new book, America by Heart, due out soon (just in time for pre-presidential-run campaigning).  In passages leaked from the book on perceptions of racial inequality in the U. S., Palin slams President Obama, who, she asserts, “seems to believe” that “America — at least America as it currently exists — is a fundamentally unjust and unequal country.” And then she goes after First Lady Michelle Obama:

“Certainly his wife expressed this view when she said during the 2008 campaign that she had never felt proud of her country until her husband started winning elections. In retrospect, I guess this shouldn’t surprise us, since both of them spent almost two decades in the pews of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church listening to his rants against America and white people.”

(Sarah Palin at an event launching her new bobble-head doll
from Scott, Flickr/Creative Commons)

Sarah Palin’s dog-whistle racism should be no surprise to anyone that has followed her or paid attention to the rise of the Tea Party.  (She’s wrong, of course, but that’s another matter.) In fact,
recent research from The Nation Institute‘s Investigative Fund, documents the ways that the Tea Party is working hand-in-glove with white Patriot movement radicals — many of whom have close ties to neo-Nazis and anti-government armed militias (reported by Alternet).  Yet, what many writers on the left are missing in this important story is the key role that white women are playing in the movement.  Sarah Palin is not the only woman involved in the Tea Party.  At a recent Tea Party rally in Paducah, Kentucky, singer Diana Nagy performed for the crowds (pictured below).

(Diana Nagy performing at Tea Party Rally,
from Gage Skidmore, Flickr/CreativeCommons)

Nagy’s song, “Where Freedom Flies,” (she composed and sings it) has become something of an anthem for the Tea Party movement, and Nagy something of a poster girl.   The song is in the genre of Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to be an American,” and it’s fine if you like that sort of tune: heavy on the patriotic lyrics, light on the social criticism, and completely devoid of a driving back beat. The video of her song on YouTube, is a short clip (2:01) with about 19,000 views.  There are a couple of telling features of the video: the images used and the link at the end.   The song is meant to be a tribute to those serving in the military (although, presumably not the gay/lesbian soldiers – but I digress).  It makes sense that the images used in the video would all be of soldiers, but after the first :30 seconds or so (flags, promotional slide of Nagy, another flag), all the images of soldiers are almost entirely white (near the end the backs of two men are shown that may be men of color, but it’s hard to tell).  Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I suspect it’s part of the larger iconography of the Tea Party, which is intentionally appealing to white peoples’ fears, rooted in racism.  It’s the end of the video clip which is the most telling, however, as it invites viewers to “get the entire song” at

As it turns out, MoveAmericaForward is another far-right group, also run by a white woman, Melanie Morgan (pictured below).

Morgan, along with Howard Kaloogian (another Tea Partier), formed Move American Forward in 2004 as a pro-war group. According to SourceWatch, Morgan gained national notoriety in the summer of 2006 when she suggested that Bill Keller, an editor of The New York Times, be killed in a “gas chamber” for the crime of “treason” after the Times’ reporting on US government spying on Americans.  Perhaps that’s just Morgan’s brand of hyperbole, but when I hear someone suggest “gas chambers” I immediately conjure Nazis and antisemitism, but maybe that’s just me.  She seems undaunted by criticism that she might be fomenting racism and antisemitism with her remarks.

In a July 2007 appearance on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, Morgan repeated her claim that Keller and other journalists who reported on the government’s SWIFT program for tracking terrorist bank transactions “should be tried for treason. If they were found guilty of treason, I would have no problem with them being executed.”  Morgan continues to make such claims on her website, and, is a promoter of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.   Today, the underlying MoveAmericaForward message is conveyed in the website’s imagery: soldiers are white, terrorists are black, and the government needs to be “taken back,” preferably by George W. Bush.

So, why does it matter that these are white women, and what does it have to do with race? It matters for a few reasons.

  • Because of sexism, white women get a pass on racism. – There’s a pervasive myth that women are somehow less racist, less capable of evil, than men.  It’s not true, and it’s an idea rooted in a kind of sexism – that women are inherently somehow kinder, gentler, and by extension, less racist, than men.  It’s just not the case, but it’s a powerful idea that still holds a lot of sway, nonetheless.   What this means is that white women are called out less, taken to task less than men are for their racism.
  • White (straight) women benefit from all kinds of unacknowledged privilege. The fact is that all these women, like other women on the far-right, benefit from privilege – heterosexual privilege, white skin privilege, and many of them, class privilege.   That unacknowledged privilege makes them not that different from the men in the Tea Party and other far-right movements.    It also feeds into the “born on third base, thought I hit a triple” version of meritocracy that they espouse.
  • Asking if these women are “feminists” is the wrong question. Lots of people have been posing the question, “Is Sarah Palin a feminist?” and I would argue that’s the wrong question.    Sure, Sarah Palin’s a feminist if she wants to call herself one.  So are Diana Tagy and Melanie Morgan.   I get that makes some feminists who don’t share the racist agenda of the Tea Party uncomfortable.   What we should be asking instead is why is (white) feminism so easily compatible with racist, far-right movements like the Tea Party?

I’ll be back tomorrow with Part 2 of “White Women, Race Matters,” in which I’ll explore the media and cultural portrayal of white women beyond the realm of political parties.