A common theme in the last few days is the tying of Romney's Birther joke to race. He joked, in his hometown, that no one had ever asked him to prove that he was born in the U.S. The idea is that Romney was playing to the deep suspicion that people inclined to accept Birtherism have of Obama, and the suspicion they have is basically racism. So Romney was deliberately invoking racist ideas in potential supporters in order to get fringe Americans who already hate Obama onto his side, while knowingly alienating the swing voters he's been desperately trying to get onto his side by trying to be as mainstream as possible without sacrificing the essentials the rightward base needs him to keep.
In furtherance of this narrative, there was a #FutureMittJokes Twitter hashtag game that trended pretty high that consisted of people inventing jokes where Romney took great delight in the privileges that come from being white, at the cost of others' having their rights violated or at least being mistreated. So Romney was projected to be likely to make jokes like the following:
"No one ever burnt a cross on *my* lawn."
"It's called the *White* House for a reason!"
"People never joke about me planting a watermelon patch on the White House lawn!"
"Nobody ever told me I couldn't attend that all White high school!"
"no one ever asked me if i was sure i was in the right place"
"No one ever told me to sit at the back of the bus. wht is a bus anyway"
"No one ever told ME I couldn't marry a White woman."
"I never get pulled over when driving one of Ann's Cadillacs"
"When the police pulls me over, they're only asking me for directions."
"No one ever burnt a cross on *my* lawn."
I'm not buying it. Romney was certainly making a jab about Obama. Anyone who denies that is being disingenuous. But what was the critique? I would have thought it had mostly to do with the repeated criticism of Obama on foreign relations. Obama bowed to foreign leaders. He accepted a Nobel Prize for not having done anything but replace Bush. He undermined national security by fighting dead battles about policies Bush abandoned in 2003. He leaked top secret information for electoral gain. He often favors our enemies over our allies. He criticizes us abroad. He is unwilling to acknowledge Muslim terrorists as terrorists or as Muslims. And so on. The list is quite long, and it's full of actual content that has nothing to do with race.
Those sorts of themes strike me as what feeds the idea that Obama doesn't have American interests at the center of his motivating structure. It's about how he behaves when dealing with other nations. I don't myself buy that entire picture. He's not always very wise in some of things he does, and it does endanger national security and embarrass the U.S. at times, but I think some of those criticisms are simply unfair. But there are those who are convinced that the U.S. president does not always have a significant concern for U.S. interests driving his foreign policy or his relations with other nations. That's completely undeniable. And there is plenty of content to the charge, particular things he's done or has been believed to have done, that does not have anything to do with his race or the fact that he was raised abroad for part of his childhood or that he was raised living as if a Muslim for some of that time. Any white dude with similar experiences and actions would arouse the same suspicion from the same people.
It's easy to see race driving this if you don't think there's any substance to those criticisms, but the fact is that a lot of people do believe there's substance to them, and it's not because Obama is black. It's because they see such behavior as unfitting of a U.S. president. They would have worried about Clinton doing any of it as much as they do Obama. It's not his race but his leftward orientation, his past as a community organizer, his privileged, elite education, and how he actually behaved when traveling abroad during his first presidential campaign that drove the suspicion that motivates people who see him as a sort of traitor to American values. And I think that, together with his Muslim influence from childhood, is what drives the Birther narrative, and it would do so even if he had been a white guy with a white, French father whose mother married a white American convert to Islam in the U.S. and then moved to Canada for a while to be enrolled in a Muslim school with extremist ties. The whole thing could just as easily have happened without the African or Indonesian elements, which means it's not race that's central. I'm sure there are some who are suspicious of him just because of his race, but I think it's been pretty clear that that's a thin sliver of those who disagree with him on policy matters. The fact that the conservative base, including the Tea Party people, could be happy with Herman Cain during the primaries seems to me to be about as close to proof as you get on such matters.
I imagine Romney agrees with a good deal of the foreign relations complaint I've outlined above, and it makes complete sense that he would make a joke at the expense of the Birthers, whom he has consistently criticized and distanced himself from. The idea is that Obama is the sort of person that crazy people can make crazy conspiracy theories about, because he fits the profile that feeds the narrative. This is because of his policies, language, and behavior toward other nations. That he was implicitly hinting at a racial narrative is not very likely. The way the story is told assumes that he was playing to the Birthers' own racism, when he was instead making fun of Birthers and invoking something that Obama's opponents take to be a serious, non-racial critique that the racial-accusers don't seem to recognize as even being part of it. The racial-narrative claim is possible if you don't think Romney could be referencing the actual content behind why people see Obama as anti-American. That a good deal of those arguments seem implausible to many on the left, I think, is what leads them to turn to other explanations. But it's poor reasoning to attribute an extreme, and psychologically unlikely, view to someone just because the more psychologically plausible view for them to be holding is one you disagree with.
Romney is not stupid enough to be doing what these critics are claiming he is doing. If he knew that people would interpret the joke the way the FutureMittJokes hashtag did, he would have considered it at the very least politically stupid (and I think he would recognize its moral offensiveness). So I'm sure he couldn't have even imagined that someone might reasonably take it to be about Obama's race. I would have a hard time imagining that if I hadn't seen people doing that and then claiming that any intelligent person must agree.
Furthermore, the joke wouldn't have had even a chance of humor if he expected people to be taking him seriously in criticizing Obama as not born in America. He has to have been making fun of Birthers for the attempt at humor even to have worked. Otherwise it would not have even been a joke. For it to be a joke, he has to be not recognizing the validity of the Birther charge and in fact making the joke at Birthers' expense.
Accusations of racism when it is not obviously present are the biggest reason so many conservatives think racism is a thing of the past, and they'll continue to fail to see the systemic and structural elements that have disparate racial effects if they're constantly made to be on the defense about issues where they are fully aware that the left is fabricating racist motives. Sometimes this is an understandable but unfortunate psychological response when there in fact is genuinely a racial element, and those who see it need to point it out, which is what some of these critics think they're doing here. But that very enterprise gets frustrated when it gets extended to situations where there's a highly plausible, even a more likely, explanation of someone's motives, as there clearly is in this case. Anyone who understands the implicit critique of Obama here is going to recognize that and will see the attempts to call it racist as shallow fabrications, which will prevent them from even recognizing racialized elements in the cases where they really are there. That's no way to further racial understanding, and that's why I think Newt Gingrich is right to see this kind of critique of Romney as frustrating racial progress, even if he's wrong in claiming that those who are making the criticism are therefore racist in doing so.
[Update 8/29: I saw a tweet today that well captures the attitude that Obama is anti-American in ways that don't rely on his race at all. It said, "Question for liberals: Why does Obama give money, guns, and oil to Mexicans but wants to take all away from Americans?"]