Black Birthers and the Problem of Bad Information
Today, August 4th, marks the birthday of Barack Obama, the President of the United States. I can honestly say I’ve never paid attention to any president’s birthday as much as Obama’s because I’ve been inundated with emails, punditry and plain silliness about his place of birth. If you’re not familiar, “Birthers” are sets of “Americans” who claim that Barack Obama has not provided sufficient proof of birth in the United States, thus violating his ability to be president. If you don’t know why this is thoroughly wrong, click these links 1, 2, 3. Now what I’m more concerned with is the message that I’ve received from Black folks regarding the birth and legitimacy of Obama as president. Yes, Virginia, there are Black birthers. While I’m not suggesting they’re in the majority, they still constitute an overlooked demographic in this population.
I was recently explaining the position of birthers to a sister of mine and she said, “oh well, that’s logical.” I stopped, looked back at her and said, “it’s logical if you don’t do any research on the issue.” I realized the birther flames continue to be fanned by the power of bad information and a backdrop of doubt rooted in racial paranoia. This backdrop of racial paranoia has been at the center of discussions of the birther movement as a ‘panic peddling’ scheme which draws from racial xenophobia. While I find this accurate, I think it is understated and gets framed as simply conservative Whites who are birthers, I concede they’re the most active, but they’re not alone. I argue racism is a system, to which all of us are subject, and thus the reality is that questions of Obama’s legitimacy remain just beneath the level of conscience for many folks, including Black folks. In a way, I’ve been subject to this in “waiting for the other shoe to drop” and find out via a scandal that something is invalid about Obama who has has been elevated to prototype status within and outside of our community. While its easy to see how conservative White birthers would be coming from a position of doubt for Obama as the “other” and have a fear of a Black President, similar roots exist for people of color. I think Black birthers or non-challengers to birthers are rooted in our own doubts of legitimacy which result from living in a white supremacist racial order. While this doubt beneath the level of conscience did not stop folks from voting for Obama, in the face of questioning or challenge, the willingness to “go to bat” for Obama or dig deeper for information becomes truncated. While I could say that this is just an isolated incident of “crazy folks” and we know not to deal with crazy (you know what they say about arguing with fools), I think it signals something deeper about information seeking, racism, and technology.
Throughout the election and at other times I’ve been dismayed by the way bad information gets passed along the internet like colds. You know, things like Black folks are due to lose our right to vote, or that the US Post office is destroying Black History stamps, the list goes on and on. While most of us grew up throwing out chain letter that were mailed to the house, it appears when we get “chain emails” with tidbits of information we often pass them along as if they’re all important PSAs. My sister tends to call these emails “Drinking water will rape your baby” emails because they often have some seriously outlandish claims, but the outlandish claims stand in part due to our own lack of information seeking and willingness to challenge. When it comes to incidents of Black folks, Obama, Muslims, and other minority communities, I sadly see more misinformation passed along and remain unchallenged. The consequence to false perceptions of these communities is particularly dangerous given the segregation, prejudice, and paranoia of non-Whites in many parts of the US. To me, it is ironic and scary that the more access we have to information via the internet, the less we use this access to properly interrogate claims and be prepared for informed dissent. While I hope the birthers will soon die out, I wonder what will be next in the web of bad information, technology, and race … and more importantly, what we’re willing to do to stop its spread.