Eugene Cho

why president obama is and isn’t american

What is the deal with President Barack Obama? Or maybe we should re-frame the question:

What is wrong with America?

Why is it that we have such a hard time

His presidency is historical for obvious reasons and everyone knew that he was going to experience an uphill journey but the questions he’s had to endure are ridiculous:


During the election season, he was questioned about his experience. And honestly, that was a fair question to be asked of all the candidates and especially of him. Legit.


He was questioned if he was really a Christian. With a name like Barack Hussein Obama, and his participation at a church that preached a Jesus that not only cared about salvation but reconciliation and thus, engaged issues of social justice and [Black] Liberation Theology, there could be no way – according to his critics and detractors – that he was a true Christian.

And any rhetoric of his declaration or participation in Christian faith are seen as simply for political purposes.


And of course, there’s been the ongoing drama the legitimacy of his Presidency because of speculation or rather, unbelief, about his birth certificate.

Despite documents already provided, President Obama (and the White House) released a copy of his “long birth certificate” yesterday to put the matter (hopefully) to rest. In his words:

I know that there’s going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest.  But I’m speaking to the vast majority of the American people, as well as to the press.  We do not have time for this kind of silliness.  We’ve got better stuff to do.  I’ve got better stuff to do.  We’ve got big problems to solve.  And I’m confident we can solve them, but we’re going to have to focus on them — not on this.

So, what’s the deal?

Why is it that some – and we’re not talking about “the segment of people” that are just irrational but also we’re talking about intelligent and influential leaders that have “questioned” the legitimacy of his Presidency. Why?

I suppose there’s the reality that if you dislike or disagree with someone, it doesn’t matter what that person does or says: They will always be wrong.

But there’s the factor that we try to tread carefully around: Racism.

He is and isn’t American

By implying “racism,” I’m not suggesting that folks are racist. Some of you will read this, roll your eyes, and think,

“There he goes again. Bringing up the race card.”

I’m not calling “birthers” racists. Nope. But rather, to  convey how much institutional racism and racialization impact our views of normative or in this case…American. It’s very clear that Barack Obama is indeed an American citizen. It’s made clear – again – that he was born in the United States but the reality (and problem) is that for “some,” he doesn’t fit into their framework, understanding, and history of what constitutes American – or perhaps, “fully American.”

I am a United States citizen and I can produce my document to prove it to doubters. 😉  But as a person of color, a “Korean-American”, and someone that defies the perception of “normative” to some (aka: Oriental), I understand the sense of being perceived as not “fully American.”

“No…no…where are you really from?”

The question above – in essence – captures the crux of the “birthers” demand for proof of his birth documents. In the end, people of color have to work harder to “prove” our worthiness of being fully American. I loved how Dr. Sherrilyn Ifill (professor at University of Maryland School of Law) put it via CNN:

This ongoing challenge to our legitimacy is the reason that so many blacks from earlier generations were told by our parents that we had to be smarter, more well-mannered, more well-spoken and more circumspect than our white counterparts. We had to prove ourselves worthy of the respect of whites, and to do so required proof that we “belonged.” It’s among the great ironies of race in this country that when black leaders display these same qualities, they are accused of “elitism,” no matter how humble their origins.

Now, even the first black president has been compelled to present proof that he “belongs” in the White House. No Harvard degree, no Nobel Prize — not even the support of a majority of voters in this vast country is enough. More will always be required.

I am neither Republican or Democrat. I neither adhere to the Tea or Coffee Party. There are things I agree and disagree about the implementations and policies of the current administration. But let’s not make a mockery of our democratic process.

Barack Obama is the President of the United States. He is my President and your President. President Barack Obama is our legitimate President and to even insert the adjective of “legitimate” before President is ridiculous.

In no way am I suggesting that we shouldn’t ask questions or question our governments. We absolutely should…this is the broken beauty of our country’s broken democracy. But let’s ask the more substantive questions:

The questions about jobs, the poor, health care, businesses, accountability (for the government, Wall Streets, corporations gone wild), why the Sonics were robbed from Seattle, our foreign policy, the ongoing wars, the education system, and the list goes on.

The reality is that America has and continues to change. And speaking of that framework…

Umm, it’s time to reframe that framework. Ready or not.

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23 Responses

  1. Bill B says:

    I voted for President Obama. What makes this unusual is that he is the first Democratic that I, a 47 year old white male, EVER voted for. I won’t say I am completely happy with the job he has done, but the alternative could be a lot worse, IMO. 🙂

    I am very tired of people calling President Obama’s citizenry into question. It is very sad that at the heart of all this is racism. Isn’t this the 21st century?

  2. I was confused by this phrase, “there could be no way that he was truly a Christian.” I was thinking you were defending Obama’s faith, but this phrase seems to say he is not a Christian.

    Meanwhile, I must say that I was surprised by his election, because he did not fit the definition of a “normal American” (race, etc). Then, during his administration, I was surprised again by the counter reaction. Since he was elected, it seemed that we had moved beyond who is and is not a “normal American.” The post-election response was what I expected prior to his election, making it impossible for him to become president.

    Perhaps we are doing switch backs, climbing the hill of receiving one another as “normal” in the midst of all our differences.

    • I had the same question about that sentence – I think perhaps Eugene is saying the following sentence that notions such as those are political rhetoric (and maybe he forgot the word “not” somewhere hehe).

    • Eugene Cho says:

      hmm. it made sense to me but then again, i wrote it. 😉

      i was intentionally trying to say that in the eyes of his critics, he was NOT a true christian.

      i think some edits to hopefully clarify.

      • melissa says:

        thanks so much for the edits! i have some dear friends that i knew would get tripped up on that (as they are already predisposed to think he is *not* a Christian)!

        This truly is more about “our views of normative” than race. I believe you gracefully challenge us to consider quitting the “blame game” around the race issue and recognizing how our perceptions/experiences are affecting our actions and beliefs.

      • thanks for the clarification!

  3. thereys says:

    please continue to bring up the “race” card. These matters need to be discussed within the Church.

  4. I definitely agree that we walk on eggshells when it comes to race and sometimes we need to just come out and say it so that we can be straightforward and discourse about it. I have a feeling though, that no matter who was elected, he/she would have been criticized at this point because 1) We (Americans) are experts at blaming, and 2) The current state of the country (and the world) is too much for any elected official to handle single-handedly.

  5. melissa says:

    I love this post! I just found the paragraph about religion a little confusing – i think i get what you’re saying! If you could clarify it, i’d love to share this post with others!

  6. Leo says:

    my co-worker made a good point… it really is a reflection of the color of his skin and not so much his race since he is half black and half white. I wonder if people would challenge his birth-place and faith as much if he was born with lighter skin.

    • Eugene Cho says:

      i agree – to a point.

      whether he’s half-black and half white doesn’t really matter. in the perception of most, the reality is that he’s black.

      light skin or dark skin – while there are differences in how he’s perceived – still comes down to the face that he’s not fully american.

  7. randall says:

    I tune into conservative AM talk radio every once in a while. The main reason I do this is to expose myself to what people I disagree with are saying. If all we do is listen to those we agree with, we’ll never have a full picture of what’s out there. That said, most AM talk show hosts are unlistenable. All they do is hurl accusations and slanderous names at the Left with very little substantive ideas to back up what they’re saying (to be fair, a lot of lefty commentators do the same for the Right).

    However, yesterday I was really curious to hear how they would respond to Obama releasing his long form birth certificate and I was surprised to hear local Seattle commentator David Boze naming the birther movement as rooted in racism. The person who was co-hosting with him at the time tried to downplay the racism allegation but Boze stuck to his claim saying that if Obama had White skin and a White name, that no one would ever have questioned his citizenship.

    He went on to point out that although there’s controversy surrounding Bill Clinton’s actual father and that John McCain was born in Panama, neither of them received anywhere near the scrutiny that Obama did regarding their citizenship. Boze said that there was undeniably a racist element to the birther movement.

    I disagree with much of what David Boze has to say about how to best run the country but I have to give credit where credit is due and for him to call out the racism behind the birther movement on conservative AM radio is something I admire.

  8. Jeff says:

    Eugene –

    Great post. One thought that I would like to add is that to many people, whatever their faith or belief system is, we MUST question the president. Sometimes we question on issues of substance, core values, and deeply held beliefs and sometimes on whether they used the right word in a speech, grieved enough (or in the proper way) after a natural disaster, stood tough enough on some military or foreign policy, etc. The reality is we question because most of us would have simply done something differently. However, most of us will never have to make the day to day decisions it takes to walk out such a role. I believe President Obama is the right person for the job right now. I think he is doing an average job as president. That has nothing to do with race or party or gender or age…it is the reality as I see it in running this country. Somebody could do better…many would do much worse…that is the world we live in. If you don’t want to be questioned about things, stay out of the view of others.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    ~ Jeff

  9. Steven says:

    “But let’s not make a mockery of our democratic process.”

    Aww come on Pastor…

    Our democratic process is itself a mockery. We did the same thing to the last four presidents, (and, while I am not old enough to recall others, history suggests some of the bitterest mud slingers were in the 1800’s) why should Obama not face all of this silly political posturing?

    I don’t see him facing anything other than what a politician should expect to face. I don’t like it, but it has always been this way.

    Maybe I am just too cynical, but calls for civility in politics are themselves a political ploy…

    • elderj says:

      I think I will agree with Steven here: Obama is subjected to no more nor less than most presidents are in terms of criticism, some of it extraordinarily personal & insulting. Thus far at least he hasn’t been accused (to my knowledge) of being actively complicit in the death of thousands of innocent Americans in order to advance a political agenda as was our previous president (i.e. Bush “knew” about 9-11 in advance), or of delaying to provide assistance to people because of their race (i.e. Katrina).

      And yes, calls for civility in politics are a political ploy typically issued by whatever side is currently in power as a way to make their opponents seem unreasonable and to delegitimize their critiques.

      There are certainly a fair number of Obama’s critics who harbor racist attitudes, but this “birther” nonsense was first raised, not by conservatives, but by Clinton during the campaign. What has been interesting overall is the general lack of disclosure from Obama which would NOT be given a pass if he weren’t Black.

  10. Garrett S. says:

    Fun Fact: I live in Hawaii and when Obama came out to Hawaii for vacation, he attended a church on a military base. Turns out a friend of mine, who I go to Bible college with, lead the worship service that evening and witnessed him declaring his faith in Jesus. Good stuff.

    Politically speaking, I think he’s been no worse than the previous administration. He’s also been no better, either.

    I think Derek Webb said it best:

  11. FreeTexan says:

    The color of skin is not the reason his birth cert is/was in doubt. McCain was challenged and provided proof within a week. Obama has waited this long to provide the required proof. Why the wait?

  12. Tim Morey says:

    What’s up Eugene! I too am scratching my head at the whole birther thing, and I don’t disagree at all with what you’re saying about people of color having to work harder to prove their worthiness.

    But I’m not sure about race as the explanation for the birther nuttiness. It’s possible for sure, but I wonder if him being more left-leaning than previous presidents (and the alarm that has caused many Americans) is at least as good an explanation too. Is it possible that his politics freak out the other side enough that rational thought flies out the window?

    I wonder this in part because of the way President Bush’s opponents went on and on about his being an illegitimate president after the 2000 election. All through his first term he was being called illegitimate, even though within the first six months of his presidency multiple recounts by independent news agencies unanimously concluded that Bush won Florida, dimpled chads and all. And then we had years of his opponents saying he knew there were no WMD in Iraq, in spite of two bipartisan congressional investigations, the independent 9/11 commission, and England’s parliamentary investigation saying otherwise. The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthamer coined the term Bush Derangement Syndrome to describe the fanaticism with which his opponents held to these ideas about Bush even as evidence piled up against their position.

    And though I didn’t really follow politics during the Clinton years, I seem to remember a fair number of people (though I’m sure less than the birthers) believed he had been involved in all sorts of illegal activity ranging from fraud all the way up to having Vince Foster killed, etc etc.

    All this to say . . . it certainly could be race (and I’m sure for some it is race), but it seems to me that finding ways to delegitamize the other party’s president – even at the expense of sound reason – happens irrespective of who the president is.

  13. Natasha says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I am a woman of color and for almost 20 years, off and on, I’ve been trying to generate dialogue amongst people of different nationalities about racism in America, because of constantly having to prove myself. We need to begin to have an honest dialogue about race, but it’s so difficult to engage when half of the population denies that it exists, which is a sure indicator of racism.

    We knew that Obama, would get flack due to his skin color. It’s the American way. To me the birther argument is extreme, and it clues us in to the lack of trust that some people have in a system that would elect a President of color.

    Question his policies…fine, but his citizenship? He duped the entire U.S. government?? Really?

    Give me a break.

  14. Sejin says:

    How coincidental that you write about this and Osama is now dead. I just finished writing a blog about it. I’m guessing that you will too.

    I pose the same questions as I did last time to your blog about Bonhoeffer.

    Do you mind taking a look?

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