Why Birtherism Is No Laughing Matter

Whether or not he intended it to, Romney's "joke" put a spotlight on his white privilege.

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Getty Images

Mitt Romney enjoys an inherent privilege of whiteness. In fact, since the nation’s foundation — and up until the recent past — only white males were granted the full democratic freedoms expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Whiteness, in and of itself, has been a de facto synonym of Americannessor at least the rights thereof.

The desire by some Republicans to deny Obama his birthright — refusing to afford him the respect of the office he now holds — is rooted in the dark annals of African-American history. This is a story that began with chains and suffered a three-fifths compromise. The concept that blacks were not fully American was written into the Constitution. Any allusion that seeks to blight the president, using metaphors that reflect the remnants of that insidious past, is nothing to joke about. Romney’s flippant approach to the blatant racism alive and well in his party reveals a white male privilege that he enjoys at the expense of others.

Adam Serwer of Mother Jones writes: “The problem with Romney’s ‘joke’ [is that] it falls into a long list of remarks that suggest an emotional myopia based on an extremely sheltered life experience. It comes across as gloating about the fact that, as a rich white man born into a wealthy and powerful family, Romney has rarely been subject to the kind of racist or sexist assumptions that clog the daily lives of millions of Americans. Romney might as well joke that he’s never been mistaken for a waiter in a restaurant or a clerk in a retail store, or that he’s never been selected for extra screening at an airport or randomly told to empty his pockets by the NYPD.”

America’s original sin has left an indelible stain on the national consciousness that rewards whiteness a kind of pass, while casting shadows of doubt and suspicion on blackness. Romney’s joke wasn’t a joke at all: It is the tortured story of “separate and unequal.” It’s why Obama was forced to “show his papers” but Romney casually ignores calls for his tax documents.

On some level Romney can’t be blamed for being the beneficiary of a privilege he did not create, but Romney is guilty of feigning ignorance while employing code words, dog whistles and engaging in dirty racial politics.

Romney is a wealthy private-equity magnate who has enjoyed a Harvard education and bank accounts in tax havens from Switzerland to the Cayman Islands. He’s trying to win an election using the votes of poor, working-class white Americans — who make up the Republican base — some of whom remain resentful of Barack Obama’s ascendency. Given that political reality, Romney can’t sell himself as a man of the people because his life is so starkly more privileged and out of touch with the very voters he’s courting. So instead he appeals to their prejudices and deep-seated racial anxieties.

Romney may speak in jest about matters of import and hide behind political maneuvering, but we’ve seen and heard it all before — and it’s no laughing matter.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on MSNBC, Al-Jazeera, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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