Jim Crow redux

Had John McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone, been elected president, would his legitimacy as a U.S. citizen been questioned? Would there have been a crescendo of voices insisting that he produce a birth certificate verifying that he was eligible to be president of the United States? Clearly not.

Yet for three years now, people on the right, including mainstream politicians, have suggested and then insisted that President Obama was not born in America but in Kenya. He is not one of us. Taken in the aggregate, these folks came to be known as "birthers," and felt no qualms about slandering our president and his legitimacy, alleging that the standard certification of live birth, which is customarily issued in Hawaii, as well as the birth announcement in the daily newspaper, were inadequate or forged.

This issue reached critical mass when Donald Trump took center stage, hinting that he was considering a run for the presidency. The electorate was ready for his brand, meaning the Trump brand, of leadership, and to hear that Obama was the worst president in the history of the U.S. And then, without so much as a pause, he threw his lot in with the birthers. He had serious questions about Obama's place of birth, revealing that he had people at that very moment in Hawaii looking into it and the more information he received the more disturbing this issue became.

What had he found out? He wasn't prepared to say, while suggesting he had found something. Trump repeated his allegations in countless network interviews, giving a legitimacy to the birthers that had previously eluded them. The Republican leadership, including House Speaker John Boehner, had never denounced their theories, willing only to say that they would take Obama "at his word." Weasel words that allowed the Republicans to keep the door on this outrageous charge open. It was politics at its most craven.

Sadly, President Obama finally requested that Hawaii release the original, long form certificate of live birth. Immediately Trump insisted that Obama release his college records because he, Trump, had read somewhere that Obama was not a good student, yet he had gotten into Columbia and Harvard. Wealthy friends of his had children with top scores on their SATs and excellent grades and they couldn't get into Harvard Law School. So there was something that needed further clarification. Should we call this new group the "transcripters"?

But what is really going on here? How to understand these people? How to understand that Trump is so ready to use his celebrity status to cast unrelenting aspersions on Obama, first regarding his birth and now his academic credentials?

Perhaps it's not terribly complicated. When Obama stood before thousands of people in Chicago's Grant Park, on election night, Nov. 4, 2008, there was a sense that something historic had happened in America and, using Obama's words, the arc of history was bending toward a better day. A day that some referred to as post-racial America, a new time when, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., persons will be judged not "by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

But it didn't take long before the hope of a post-racial America was dashed by the birthers and people of their ilk. Know that the place of Obama's birth was in truth a ruse, disguising these people's inability to accept that our president was a man of color, born to a white mother and a black Kenyan father. This is the reality that they can't accept.

There are strands of racism and hate that run through the claims of the birthers and now Donald Trump that are reminiscent of Jim Crow, separate but equal, and the most awful institution imaginable, slavery, a profoundly regrettable time when children were separated from mothers, husbands from wives, and sold as so much chattel.

Listen carefully to Trump's new interrogatories, based not on issues or policies but something far more insidious: How is it possible, he asks, that Obama, who he had heard was not a very good student, could be accepted to Columbia and then Harvard Law School?

Embedded in that question is a latent racism that is profoundly damaging, not only to Barack Obama but to the presidency itself. Those words carry the premise that Obama did not have the intelligence or the ability to gain admission, that he was the recipient of some nefarious assistance. Trump's purpose is to diminish Obama's achievements and the man, and by extension to call into question the abilities of all black people who achieve positions of responsibility and a measure of equality.

It's a theme that runs through our history and links Trump to Jim Crow and reminds us, yet again, that post-racial America may one day be achieved, but not today or tomorrow.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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