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“The Other:” Barack Obama and the Fight for American Identity

Rev. David L. Ostendorf • Aug 24, 2010

A scant nineteen months into office, Barack Obama has become the lightning rod for the unfolding fight for American identity—a fight that will last far into the twenty-first century as the country becomes minority white and dramatically more pluralistic.

That some twenty percent of the population (a significant increase since January 2009) think the President is a Muslim is but one indicator of the breadth of this fight and the success of those waging it.  Religion, race, birth status, and the “legitimacy of citizenship” are at the very heart of the recent surge in attacks on Obama, and are at the core of the battle not only on immigration, but also on the “status” of all peoples of color.  Making the President “The Other”—the One unlike the “us” of the dominant white Christian population—makes it so much easier to make “The Other” of all peoples of color and of all those of differing religious beliefs.  Welcome to 1840 America.

In this retro-country immigrants and refugees are the economic and cultural enemy.  African Americans are largely condemned to incarceration, economic undergrounds, and violent death. Poor people are unseen.   Muslims are treated as terrorists.  “They” are collectively “The Other,” as is the President himself.  When the hatred and bigotry sticks at the top, it poisons the whole of the body politic.

The sordid collection of nativists, bigots, racists, and white/Christian nationalists who seeded this battle some years ago now enfolds tea partiers and Republican “leaders,” fueled by the Rupert Murdoch media empire.  The late Sam Francis, a white nationalist associated with the Council of Conservative Citizens, could not himself have imagined the speed by which this battle has been mainstreamed.   When Senate Minority Leader McConell panders to Islamaphobes by lamely stating that he takes “the President at his word” that he is a Christian, the message is clear: the President says he is one of “us,” but who knows for sure?

Some thirty years out from a majority population of color, white fear is palpable and increasingly dangerous, and efforts by the now-dominant culture to preserve its power and place threaten the very foundations of the country.  Birthright citizenship? Gut it.  Religious freedom? Restrict it.  Rights of the minority? Quash them.  Equal opportunity?  Limit it.   Whither Barack Obama in the days ahead, crafting and creating “The Other” is but prologue to the coming decades of potentially crippling political turbulence.  With “The Other” as foil, economic, social, racial, and natural crises are easily ignored, and a political culture of inaction becomes the stagnating norm.  Welcome to 2010 America.

For the past two years the writers on Imagine2050 have relentlessly advanced analysis, discussion, and debate on the emerging crisis of American identity as manifested particularly in the intractable political firestorm over immigration and race.  Warning flags have been posted.  Still, “The Other” is increasingly defined and defiled.  And the country is paying dearly for it.

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