President Obama has had a consistent problem with widespread misconceptions regarding his birthplace, nationality and even religion. Despite discussing his childhood extensively, releasing his birth certificate and participating in Christian rituals these misconceptions do not go away. Defenders of his administration have attributed this to racism and xenophobia, which, in my estimation, is largely accurate. Regardless of the true motivations behind these claims, Durkheim would likely attribute this phenomenon to the natural tendency for social systems to achieve balance.
Formal, structural racism has characterized American institutions for the majority of the country’s history. Even now as this formal characteristic has been stripped from the country’s laws and institutions, inequality remains the norm, indicating that structural racism still exists, albeit informally. American society has largely maintained stability since the Civil Rights Era, and is becoming more cohesive as a result of integration, but the societal segments that enjoyed higher privilege before integration have an interest in a social order that no longer exists. They navigate a confusing set of competing values, where they must maintain solidarity with both their ancestors that constructed and exercised their privilege as well as the social structures that they belong to in the present. This can lead to startlingly contradictory rationalizations – such as racism is bad but African-Americans were happy before integration, or that the President is unfit to serve in office, not because of the color of his skin but because an imaginary legal technicality that just must be true. These sorts-of statements may be a two-faced expression of values, but at the same time they allow participation in a greater social structure that emphasizes uncomfortable values.