These people are in denial about a changing America, and they shouldn't be encouraged.
Barack Obama was born in Kenya. His Hawaii birth certificate was forged. Fake birth announcements were planted in Hawaii newspapers in 1961.
Take your pick of these crackpot ideas spread by the so-called birthers. All are false and have been debunked again and again by credible evidence.
But because the birthers insist on spreading their vile falsehoods, they continue to generate media attention.
Trouble is, the mainstream news reports of the birthers have failed to answer a key question in the story: Why?
Why do birthers, despite clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, still insist that Obama is not eligible to be president?
To be sure, some of these folks are simply not connected to reality and share a lot with those who believe the moon landing was faked or that 9/11 was a government plot.
But the simple truth is that many birthers are simply racist. They keep pushing their fictions because they cannot accept the fact that there is a black family living in the White House.
Obama's election was a dramatic demonstration of the demographic and cultural changes that have been taking place in this country in the last few decades. Most Americans welcomed this change. But to many prejudiced whites, it was jarring and unsettling to their comfortable world where they, and others who looked like them, had all the power. In that world, blacks and other minorities were tolerated, as long as they did not hold any significant reins of power.
Among such people, Obama doesn't fit with the concept of what a "real" American is, so they cook up layers of conspiracies to hide their prejudices. And, perhaps more important, questioning Obama's eligibility to be president keeps them in denial about the new America that has room for people of different backgrounds and funny names.
This racial hatred is sometimes couched as a hatred for the president's politics, policies, beliefs and character, but the origin of that hatred can ultimately be traced to his race. If you don't believe this, wade (if you dare) into the cesspool of right-wing websites, blogs and bulletin boards, where, sad to say, the "n-word" is used casually.
How can we as a nation combat this racism? An important step is for elected leaders to confront the birthers and their foul prejudices. Sadly, not enough of that is taking place.
A handful of Republican representatives in Congress have recently made statements that have given legitimacy to the birthers. Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, for example, said that the birther movement "has a point" and that "I don't discourage them [birthers] from going ahead and pursuing that." And Republican Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri questions "why the president can't produce a birth certificate."
There is a shameful reason why these and other Republicans can't bring themselves to denounce the fraudulent messages the birthers spread. Recent opinion polls suggest that the birther message is especially resonant with Republican voters. A nationwide poll by Daily Kos/Research 2000 indicates that 28 percent of Republicans believe that Obama was not born in the United States and that a separate 30 percent are "not sure." (Among Democrats, 93 percent say they believe that he was.) A poll in Virginia by Public Policy Polling showed that 24 percent of all the state's voters believe Obama was not born in the United States and that the same percentage are not sure.
Facing these numbers, it's understandable that many Republicans cannot bring themselves to reject the birther nonsense. To do so risks alienating a portion of their party's base. But while it's understandable, it's not excusable.
To stem the racist tide emerging in this country, triggered by the election of a black president, responsible leaders must stand up and unequivocally confront the bigotry of the birthers, despite the prospect of losing votes. This false debate on the legality of the Obama presidency needs to be settled now, before it festers and divides this country any further.
Upon publication of this commentary, my family and I will likely receive ugly hate mail and phone calls, and may even face physical confrontations. I accept these possibilities, because I believe that, no matter what the cost, good people must always confront those who want to promote hatred.
I may therefore lose something more important than just votes in a reelection campaign. So how about it, Republican leaders? Will you, for the sake of national unity, stop pandering to the unsavory birthers who seek to undermine this great nation?
Tim Walker is a writer living in St. Paul.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.