Does Donald Trump have any sense of decency? He declared this morning that he was "proud" of himself for forcing President Obama to make his detailed birth certificate public. The president of the United States had to "prove" that he was actually a United States citizen, two years into his term. "We do not have time for this kind of silliness," the president declared after releasing a copy of the long-form document.
But it wasn't silliness that pushed the president to respond. Trump's line of attack on Barack Obama — fueled by news media that don't know how to say no — had evolved from hilarious to dangerous.
Last night on MSNBC's Hardball With Chris Matthews, Patrick Buchanan amplified one thread of Trump's attack, questioning Obama's qualifications for being admitted to Columbia and Harvard universities. "I hear he was a terrible student, " Trump said. Buchanan, as can be expected, went further: "He went to Occidental College; then suddenly he shows up at one of the best schools in the country, Columbia. He vaults from there to Harvard Law School; suddenly he's on Harvard Law Review; suddenly he's the editor of Harvard Law Review. We've never seen any grades of the guy — these are legitimate questions … I think he's affirmative action all the way!"
Maybe Trump did us all a favor — not by pressuring the president to release the document — but by turning to qualifications and, by extension, affirmative action. Yes, affirmative action is red meat for that segment of white Americans who are always on the lookout for signs that blacks are getting some kind of unfair break. But it also brings the race issue out into the open.
African Americans may never get the majority of white Americans to share their belief since the start of the Birther campaign that many of the attacks on the president conceal a nasty racial element. From the unprecedented and disrespectful "You lie!" outburst by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) during the president's 2009 speech before a joint session of Congress, to the argument made by pundits from Glenn Beck to Ben Quayle to Trump (again) that Obama is the "worst president in history," many black Americans have believed that, while there are legitimate reasons to criticize Obama, many of these attacks have had an unusually virulent edge.
And occasionally we have glimpsed the naked rage that drives some Obama opponents: the racial caricatures — now censored out of Tea Party gatherings — and racist cartoons or photos like the one sent by a Southern California GOP official last week, portraying the president as a chimpanzee.
To those who are unable to accept the reality of a black U.S. president, Obama is a) a foreigner in power by subterfuge; b) an unqualified fraud who has been given special privileges that he did not earn or deserve; or c) a plant or puppet, serving the unspecified objectives — presumably evil — of some hidden group or force.
We shouldn't forget the line of criticism that suggests he's secretly a Muslim. Remember Tom Tancredo's charge that Obama was "a greater threat to this country than al-Qaida"? What resonates for many black Americans is the realization that Obama, no matter how qualified and competent he is, is still viewed by a sizable percentage of his fellow Americans as a dangerous outsider — a usurper who holds the highest office in the land by subterfuge.
The saddest aspect of this is the news media's role in promoting this line of discussion. Many news organizations have independently verified the president's birth in Hawaii and his achievements, and yet they kept giving Trump a platform to spread his poison. Some of our media colleagues will argue that they had to cover the story, even if Trump was barely plausible as a candidate for president.
Would they have given the story the same attention if Trump had argued that Obama was an alien from outer space? We at The Root made clear that we thought the argument was specious and expressed our alarm that it continued, as did some other news outlets.
The idea that Obama "doesn't belong" in the White House is a threat to our sense — as people of color, as newcomers, as immigrants — of being legitimate participants in the gorgeous mosaic of America. But it is also dangerous for the president, already the recipient of an unprecedented number of threats against his life.
Remember Rep. Gabrielle Giffords? For a brief moment we hoped that her tragic shooting had reset the civic discourse in this country. A recovering Giffords will be watching her husband soar into space on the last shuttle flight this Friday. If only our hopes for a better America could share that trajectory.
Joel Dreyfuss is The Root's managing editor.