Those of us who grew up in Hawaii should be insulted, but not surprised at the revival of the Obama citizenship issue. That Arizona was able to generate national media attention by having its secretary of state issue a spurious demand for proof of Barack Obama's birth in Hawaii demonstrates only that reactionary politics can reach high levels of government.
The same national media refrains from defining racist claims for what they are, forestalled by push-back from conservative commentators who declare charges of racism to be racially motivated. It's a manifestation of George Orwell's technology-saturated society in which the powerful can persuade a population that "war is peace."
In covering the issue of racism underlying reaction to Obama's presidency, a special edition of Qualitative Sociology (Vol. 35, No. 2, June 2012) makes a case that persistence of the birthright dissonance is more than just far-right ignorance.
Other studies validate the observation by Mississippi State University sociologist Matthew W. Hughey that "racist discourse finds life through metamorphosis into polite and subtle forms of public talk and private sites of racial homogeneity and invective." ("Show me your papers! Obama's birth and the whiteness of belonging," Qualitative Sociology, June 2012)
The attitudes that promote the issue stem from political identification discussed by political scientists Jack Citrin and Matthew Wright in their analysis of American identity, "Defining the Circle of We, American identity and immigration policy." ("The Forum," Vol. 7, Issue 3, 2009)
Citrin-Wright note national identity can be based on ethnicity or on civic principles: "The literature on nationalism distinguishes between the ethnic nation, such as German, with membership defined on principle of descent, and the civic nation with membership based on the acceptance of certain fundamental values and institutions." The United States generally is seen as a civic nation, but the label is an idealization not a social reality.
In a related analysis, Wright and Tim Reeskens, reviewing differences in individual attitudes based on ethnic and civic nationalism, suggest the potential for politicization of ethnocentrism: "Ethnic nationalism in particular may be stoked by terrorism, religious conflict and the challenges (both cultural and economic) of immigration, and political elites in Europe and elsewhere have played up fears related to these issues."
In effect, reactionary challenges to President Obama's citizenship reflects ethnic nationalism among individuals unable to accept a nonwhite president. They are a minority in the American electorate but their numbers are substantial, including fringe white supremacists as well as more centered groups who internalize ethnic stereotypes in their framing of social structures.
As sociologists Adia Harvey Wingfield and Joe Feagin suggest, there is a "white racial frame (that) offers a convenient way for whites and others to interpret various racialized situations, events and occurrences in society. This frame includes racial stereotypes, prejudices, common sense assumptions, images and sincere fictions that cast whites as more virtuous, intelligent, moral and honest than members of other racial groups." ("The racial dialectic: President Obama and the white racial frame," Qualitative Sociology)
For most of us in Hawaii, the ethnocentric dispute would be comical if it weren't so personal with its implications that Hawaii's people are ignorant or engaged in a massive global conspiracy.
In Hawaii, racial framing encompasses all the elements of stereotyped images, prejudices, assumptions and unsubstantiated myths, but with the added element that there is no majority ethnic position and hence no single, communitywide racial frame through which political and social attitudes are formed. Rather, most of us in Hawaii can appreciate that Keola Beamer's musical parody, "Mr. Sun Cho Lee," deals with fictionalized stereotypes, not realistic representations of the ethnic groups comprising Hawaii. We can laugh at ourselves.
Too many in the rest of the United States do not share Hawaii's sense of a civic self.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.