I’m sure you have all heard by now that last week, after dealing with increased media publicity about questions regarding his U.S. citizenship, President Obama felt compelled to petition the state of Hawai’i to publicly release his long form Certificate of Live Birth that verifies that he was in fact born in the U.S. and is therefore eligible to be President. Below is a news clip of the story from NBC News:

As many observers point out, this release of the long form Certificate of Live Birth should appease many Americans who may have had a slight doubt about President Obama’s birthplace. However, it is not likely to convince “hardcore” birthers who will undoubtedly continue to question Obama’s status as an American, no matter what the evidence.

So let’s just cut to the chase: this “birther” movement is not really about Obama’s eligibility to be President. Rather, it just another example of the White Backlash that I have been describing for a while now and illustrates the resistance and difficulty that a number of White Americans still have about having a person of color as President and the larger context of demographic and cultural changes taking place in U.S. society. To summarize some of my earlier posts, several institutional trends are fundamentally changing U.S. society:

© James Noble/Corbis
  • The changing demographics of the U.S. in which non-Whites increasingly make up a larger proportion of the population and the projection that in about 35 years, Whites will no longer be a majority in the U.S.
  • The political emergence of non-Whites, best represented by the election of President Obama, and also illustrated by the growing Latino population.
  • The continuing evolution and consequences of globalization, the growing interconnections between the economies of the U.S. with other countries, and the economic rise of China and India.
  • The “normalization” of economic instability and how, even after this current recession ends, Americans will likely still be vulnerable to economic fluctuations that affect the housing market, stock market, and overall unemployment.
  • The unease about the U.S.’s eroding influence and military vitality around the world.

In basic terms, these institutional trends have led many (as always, meaning a large number but not all) White Americans to feel destabilized as their implicit and taken-for-granted position at the top of the U.S. racial hierarchy is increasingly being threatened — politically, economically, and socially. They are also afraid that, as the U.S. is starting to lose its position of being the dominant political, economic, and military superpower in the world, their standard of living — and hence, their identity — are being threatened in the process.

As social scientists document, whenever anybody or any group feels threatened, they tend to get defensive, reactive, and attempt to cling on to their privileges as much as possible. One mechanism by which they do so is to assert a more rigid cultural boundary between them and “others” — insiders vs. outsiders, us vs. them. In the case of the birther movement, this attempt revolves around differentiating between “real” Americans (in the traditional image of U.S. society — White, middle class, and Protestant) and those perceived as “fake” Americans — immigrants, people of color, and specifically, President Obama.

The birthers usually counter with accusations that critics like me are just “playing the race card” and that their questions about Obama’s status as an American have nothing to do with his race. Unfortunately the evidence is not in their favor. As observers and critics like Tim Wise have argued elsewhere, the racial overtones of the birther movement and the larger White backlash movement are overwhelming.

At this point, it is almost exasperating to list and recount every single example of the racist aspects of the birther and White backlash movement. So for now, perhaps the best way to illustrate this further is to use humor and satire. For that, I will turn to Stephen Colbert and his recent observations about this issue below — make sure you view the video through to the end — punchline is well worth it:

As you know already, today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the national holiday when we celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy of racial equality and justice. This year, Dr. King’s birthday is accompanied by another very auspicious and momentous occasion — the inauguration of Barack Obama to be our next President.

It is also during this time of the year that billions of people around the world prepare to celebrate Lunar New Year (occurring on January 26 this year). For Vietnamese Americans like me, our version of Lunar New Year is of course Tet. As I describe in more detail, Tet traditionally is a celebration of rebirth and renewal.

Each year, in our effort to commemorate Lunar New Year and Tet, my wife and I usually do a small presentation in our daughter’s elementary school class about the traditions of Tet. We will be doing this year’s presentation tomorrow in her class. Since the presentation will be almost a week before actual Tet, we thought we would try to do a presentation that links these important events together — Dr. King’s Day, Obama’s inauguration, and Tet.

The theme of our presentation is the title of this post — “King, Obama, Tet, and the Diversity of Change” and I’d like to summarize it here for you (fyi, the text is simplified because it’s directed at elementary school students).

Around this time, billions of people all around the world celebrate the new year, based on the cycles of the moon, which is called the lunar calendar. One of the earliest lunar calendars was invented by the Chinese around 4,000 years ago and is still one of the most widely used lunar calendars. Because the Chinese lunar calendar is the most famous, many people call this occasion the “Chinese New Year.” But we prefer to call it Lunar New Year because it’s more inclusive.

Each Lunar New Year is symbolized by one of 12 different animals and the traditional legend is that the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius called a meeting of all animals and 12 eventually showed up and he gave them each a year on the Lunar calendar. On Monday, we’ll celebrate the Year of Ox — anyone born starting Monday until the next Lunar New Year will be born into the Year of the Ox, along with anyone who turns 12, 24, 36, 48, etc.

Along with the Chinese, many other nationality and ethnic groups celebrate Lunar New Year. Because my family came from Viet Nam, our version of Lunar New Year is called Tet. Like many Lunar New Year celebrations, Tet is one of the biggest and most important holidays in Vietnamese culture, almost like New Year’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all rolled into one.

Here in the U.S., you have probably seen Chinese or Lunar New Year celebrations that involve parades and Lion dances. But in more traditional terms, Tet also symbolizes “rebirth” and “renewal.” This means that whatever happened to you personally, to your family, or to your country in the past year, the New Year is your chance to start all over again to have a happy and prosperous new year.

In preparation for Tet, many families clean and even paint their home in anticipation of spring, they settle old debts and disputes, buy new clothes, and pledge to behave nicely and work hard in the new year.

This Lunar New Year occurs around the same time as another very important event that’s taking place a little later today in our nation’s capital, Washington DC — Barack Obama’s inauguration — when he officially becomes our next President.

It’s a very exciting and emotional time for many Americans. One of the reasons why it’s so exciting for many Americans is that, in many ways, Obama’s inauguration also symbolizes the rebirth of our country. In terms of his policies, he has said that he plans to do many things differently from what our last President has done, and this was one of the main reasons why so many people voted for him.

But more generally, he represents rebirth in many other ways. For example, as you probably already know, he is the first African American President of the United States. This is a very big deal — this country unfortunately has not treated African Americans and other people of color very well throughout its history. In many ways, African Americans and other people of color are still treated badly and still face many kinds of prejudice and discrimination in American society.

This kind of change was also symbolized by the person whose birthday we celebrated yesterday as a national holiday — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Especially as Barack Obama becomes our nation’s first African American President, it’s important to remember the life and words of Dr. King, especially when he talks about change and rebirth. Here are some excerpts from Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech that talks about change:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. . . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. . . . With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, and to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

Dr. King’s word have inspired many Americans, such as Barack Obama, to do what they can to change America for the better and in the process, to help people start anew toward a better life for themselves, their families and loved ones, and our entire world.

It’s with this in mind that we celebrate these three wonderful and important events taking place all at the same time — Dr. King’s birthday, Barack Obama’s inauguration, and Tet, the Lunar New Year celebration of rebirth and renewal.

Like millions of Americans, I am anxiously awaiting noon on Tuesday, January 20. This is the hour when Barack Obama is scheduled to take the oath of office and officially become the next President of the United States.

I’ve written before on the sociological and personal significance of this momentous event and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But in the meantime, my Vietnamese American colleague Andrew Lam of New America Media has written a very eloquent post about what Barack Obama’s inauguration means to him.

Andrew begins his piece by recounting the plot of Daniel Defoe’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and how Crusoe “saves” an indigenous man, names him “Friday,” and basically teaches him the ways of acting “civilized” according to White, European standards. Andrew then relates the story to his own experiences:

[W]hen he was christened, when he called Crusoe “master,” Friday essentially lost his autonomy and his past. When he was taught a new language, Friday lost his bearings and the articulation and the enchantment of his old tongue. . . .

For a while, as a Vietnamese refugee to America, I grieved. Then I resigned myself to the idea that I was fated to live at the empire’s outer edge, living in a world in which Friday’s children were destined to play subservient roles and sidekicks. I knew this because I saw it on TV nightly.

Friday became Tonto, Mammy, Pocahontas, Kato, and (play it again) Sam. I saw too, the complexity of my own Vietnamese past ignored or, worse yet, simplified and reduced to faceless figures in black pajamas and conical hats, to serve as props or to be gunned down by American GIs, the wielders of history. . . .

Five hundred years after European conquest began, the glory of Crusoe continues to play out. “The Swiss Robinson Family,” and “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” and dozens more movies were direct spin offs but its mythos provides the backbone for tv shows like Star Trek, where the captain is white and his crew are ethnic and aliens, and contemporary films like Men in Black, Jerry McGuire, Pulp Fiction, and Lethal Weapon, just to name very few. In them the ethnic sidekicks help make the main character who he is, reinforcing his centrality. . . .

Who knows then when the story began to shift? . . . It may very well have begun with Frederick Douglass. . . . [H]e learned the alphabet from his master’s wife. He stole books. He learned how to read and write. He taught others. He became an abolitionist, editor, a suffragist, author, and the first African American nominated vice president in 1872 on the Equal Rights Party ticket with Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President of the United States. . . .

For this is the way the new power lies: Those who once dwelled at the margins of the Commonwealth have appropriated the language of their colonial masters and used it with great degree of articulation as they inch toward the center, crossing all kinds of demarcations, dispelling the old myth. If Crusoe contends that he still is the lead actor, Friday is far from being content to playing subservient and sidekick any longer. . . .

[O]n that fateful Tuesday in November 4, 2008, Friday spoke up loud and clear and eloquently, and declared himself an equal, and the whole world danced. He tells us to dare to dream big, even this once considered impossible dream: Son of Africa becomes the new patriarch of America.

I think Andrew captures the sentiments of many of us very accurately.