Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Death of the birthers?


The birth certificate in all its long-form glory has been revealed to a panting public. And so even the most hardcore so-called birther will now acknowledge that Barack Obama is legally entitled to serve as President of the United States, right? Well, not so fast.

In my October 2009 "Antigravity" column ("Birth of A Notion"), I discussed the research of Harvard University psychologist Mahzarin Banaji on "implicit social cognition, which involves the deep-rooted assumptions we all carry around and even act on without realizing it."

Work in this field revealed that white Americans intrinsically think of whites as more American than are nonwhites, even if the white person is European. For example, English actor Hugh Grant was perceived as more American than American tennis player Michael Chang. So it may not be a surprise that whites thought of Senator John McCain as intrinsically more American than Obama. But they even thought of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as more American than Obama. (Results in this field can be shocking: in a 2005 episode of the "Scientific American Frontiers" program, host Alan Alda was taken aback to discover with Banaji that his feminist credentials did not stop him from having a bias against women in the workplace.)

In the column I connected Banaji's research to the Obama citizenship issue thusly: "A black president…causes great cognitive dissonance in some. But members of the 'birther' movement have found a clever solution: Obama isn't really president! Because he wasn’t really born in the USA!"

So I do not expect the issue of Obama's legal entitlement to the office of President to go away just because undeniable evidence has been released that he was born in the U.S. The birthers will find another reason to deny Obama's legal status. Because as Wired contributing editor Mat Honan (@mat) tweeted: "So if that really is Obama's *real* birth certificate, and he really is eligible to be President, how come he is still not a white guy?"

Image of birth certificate from

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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