Fox News anchor Brit Hume, a white man, on Wednesday gave his two white panelists a simple question to solve: Is birtherism — the movement, led in part by Donald Trump, that raised questions about whether President Barack Obama was born in America — racist? And his all-white panel came back with a single conclusion: Nope, it’s not at all racist.
Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes summed up the general mood of the segment in the video above by Media Matters: “I don't think it’s racist at all. The whole birther thing is not a matter of race. It’s a matter of nationality, of where he was born, whether he was a citizen or not.”
At face value, this may appear to be accurate; the question really is whether Obama was a natural-born citizen of the US — a key requirement to be president. But this is an extremely superficial take on the birther question.
For one, Obama is the first black president. That alone likely led people to “other” him, making it easier to question if he really was born in the US and if he really is American (even after Obama provided his longform birth certificate, showing once and for all he was born in America).
You can see this in how other presidential candidates have been treated. John McCain, for example, was actually born in Panama — specifically, the Panama Canal Zone, where McCain’s father served in the US Navy. But that never led to a birther movement for McCain, who is white, in the same way it did for Obama, who ran for president against McCain in 2008. Was race behind this?
Yes, birtherism is driven by racial attitudes
Political scientist Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College took a look at the effects of race and racial attitudes on birtherism in a 2014 paper. He concluded that birtherism “is almost completely resistant to factual correction and is strongly related [to] partisanship and attitudes about race.”
To evaluate this, Klinkner conducted a survey of Americans asking them about their views on Obama’s birthplace. He then compared the answers to other factors, such as political party, race, and racial attitudes. He found that birthers are almost entirely white, are mostly Republican, and reported high levels of racial resentment.
In fact, a stronger belief in birtherism correlated tightly with increasing levels of racial resentment.
It’s possible the correlation was coincidental: The study acknowledged that whiteness, Republicanism, and racial resentment all tend to correlate, so maybe this really reflects that partisan beliefs, not racial resentment, drive birtherism. But when Klinkner put all of these factors through a statistical control model, he found that racial resentment significantly correlated by itself with birtherism.
To prove this, Klinkner also looked at Democrats who believed Obama was born outside the US. He found, “Among those with the lowest levels of racial resentment, party had little influence as both Democrats and Republicans had a low probability of believing in birtherism. As racial resentment increased, however, the probability of birtherism increased for both Democrats and Republicans, but more among the latter.” So partisan beliefs did play some role, but racial resentment played a significant role as well.
So an all-white Fox News panel may disagree, but birtherism really was driven, at least in part, by race and racial attitudes.