“Show me your papers” —thoughts on respecting President Obama

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and her President (photo credit: Hazar N. Ghanbari / AP Photo)

A year ago, when I first saw the Goldie Taylor video I’ve included below, I knew I wanted to blog about it. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to say, but it stirred up emotions in me that I wanted to process by writing about them.

All these months later I still haven’t quite processed those emotions into a cohesive article. But I keep running into experiences and interactions that remind me of this video. So, rather than wait for all the ingredients to gel into a pulitzer-worthy feature with an inspiring story arc, I think I should just start by doing something, getting some thoughts down in black-and-white (so to speak). I hope you’ll forgive the roughness of this draft.

First, the video:

Now, some thoughts:


It brings tears to my eyes, literally, to hear Ms. Taylor’s 1899 show-me-your-papers story, and to realize that we are doing the same thing in 2012.

To. The. President.

I’m embarrassed by that. It makes me want to apologize for being white.


And I’d like to think that the arrogant white billionaire so proud of the disrespect he shows to the President is alone in his insolence. But I’m afraid he’s not.


I had coffee the other day with a group of Christians, including a good, Christian man whom I have a lot of respect for. We were bemoaning the dearth of confidence-inspiring political candidates in our small village. When the topic turned to national politics, this good, Christian man called President Obama something that I couldn’t quite hear, but it included the word “devil.”

Now this was stunning to me in and of itself. But it was also ironic, because a few minutes earlier, about local politics this same man had said, “The only thing you can do is vote for the one with the most integrity.”

And that’s the exact strategy I had used when I voted for Obama in 2008. (It’s also the strategy I used when I voted for Bush in 2004.)


Honestly, I don’t know if voting “integrity” is even a viable strategy. My current local administration is made up of good, moral people, but they don’t seem to be able to stop the decline of our village. And Jimmy Carter gained a reputation as a man of great character who was one of our nation’s worst presidents. So voting “integrity” may not be smart.

Still, it’s the only strategy I have—because I don’t understand politics. I can’t follow which policies will have what effects on which people. I don’t remember who stands for what, and I don’t know how to interpret the claims they make. I don’t know who to believe. I can’t discern truth from spin. I’m not proud of this, but I don’t know what to do about it. It’s like a learning disability I have.

So I tend to rely on my judgment of the candidates’ character in order to decide which way to vote. In 2008, I concluded that Obama had more integrity than McCain. I admired his strong marriage, his proud fathership, his community ties, his church attendance, and his writing skills.


And maybe this is racist, but I felt like it was time to have a black man lead our nation. America’s Presidency should be more reflective of America’s population than it has been for the past 200 years.


And maybe this is naive, but I’ve really been surprised by the racist jokes, cartoons, innuendos, and affronts that resulted. I honestly thought we were pretty much past that. Apparently we’re not.


Is this how it always has to be for “the first one”? Barack Obama is the first black President of the United States, but he’s not the first black person to break a barrier, or to give white people reason to dismantle our stereotypes. We seem unable to apply truths proven before (by Jackie Robinson, for example) to new situations (like President Obama). Will we go through the same jokes, disrespect, and fear the first time a woman is elected? The first time a Mexican is elected? Why do we have to start all over again—Every. Single. Time. It’s heart-rending.


“Show me your papers”? How dare we. And how ironic that Barak Obama’s “papers” reveal credentials that would place him in a class above his wealthy accuser.


I do not know what President Obama’s legacy will be. I can’t defend his politics—not because they’re indefensible, but because I am incapable. And I can’t prove his integrity—I’m fully aware that the character I believe he has may be nothing more than a figment of media spin.

Though his legacy deserves to include the graciousness and forbearance he has shown in the face of unprecedented disrespect, I hope that will be only a footnote to a career that will be marked with many other successes. I don’t want him to be a success “as a black man.” I just want him to be a success.

Respecting President Obama
My President—our President—deserves more respect than he’s been given. From a certain egotistical billionaire certainly, but also from regular people like me in churches and coffee shops across the country.



15 thoughts on ““Show me your papers” —thoughts on respecting President Obama”

  1. Wow! This is a great article! You have put into words exactly what I have been thinking for a long time. Our president deserves our respect, simply because he is the President. Unfortunately, our country tends to react the same way to all of the “firsts” that you have mentioned. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. I feel that what we must do is stand up against the racism and the bigotry, it is those things which cause the slippery slope that catapaults generations of people to be affected by genocide…remember the Holocaust; the wars between the Tutus and the Hutsi’s; the rage against homosexuals,etc. etc. If we would all take the time to see the image of God that is within each of us and draw it out…this world would be a much better place.
    I choose to stand up against racism and bigotry. I may be one small voice, but I know that there are many other voices (like yours) that stand with me. Together our voices can become the symphony of change that this world so desperately needs.


    • Thanks for your encouragement, Peg. I don’t mind standing up against racism, but I’m less confident in this particular arena because of the politics. It’s common to hear people claim they’re not being racist but “American,” and I’m not quite sure how to logically debate that.

  2. One word came to mind to sum up my thoughts on your thoughts…
    “Amen Sister, Amen!”

    Amen in all its definitions of the word….truly, so be it, verily, truth. AMEN!

      • I agree with everything you’ve said. I feel exactly the same as you do. I stand amazed and appalled at the level of racism we are experiencing in 2012. I’m not a writer and I’m not very eloquent expressing my thoughts or feelings which is why I chose “Amen”. You said it all for me. As the election comes closer and people are now beginning to become more engaged, I am asked my opinion more frequently and I am truly taken by surprise at the reactions I receive when I give it…I’ve been told I cannot be a Christian if I am pro-Obama or Democratic. I have been shunned by people who I once thought were close acquaintance and even friend because I hold a different view from theirs. I am a registered Republican (more of a center-right Republican being social justice minded and fiscally conservative) but the older I get I am becoming more and more liberal because standing on the edge and observing, I see the Republican party becoming more and more about the “self”, and the Democratic party is about “others”. When a party platform is all about doing away with the programs that were put in place for the most vulnerable among us, I ask myself, that’s Christ-like??

        I get to my personal opinion by way of observing and reading both sides of the story from both sides of the Aisle and weighing that against Scripture, specifically Micah 6:8 — “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

        I can almost cry when I observe Christian values, like advocating for the most vulnerable among us, caring for creation, (I’ve actually been told to my face that “that’s not Christian–that’s social justice!!”and living a life that reflects the model Christ gave us is now considered anti-Christian.

        From “Show me the papers”, to Social Justice is anti-christian…it only reveals the truth about how far, as a nation, we are from truly being a Christian nation.

        In the words of the Motto of my alma matter, Dominican University, “Caritas et Veritas – Love and Truth – let that be our compass to guide us forward.”

        • Your thoughts resonate with me, Joan. The Facebook conversation ignited by this post is leading me to conclude that there is no place in politics for a thoughtful, logical exchange of ideas. It’s all emotion and reaction—and not just from Republicans. Or Christians. One of the blogs I read is written by a senior citizen who is very much a Democrat. She is generally a well-read, intelligent person, but when she talks politics she is one-minded, insulting, and angry. In fact, if you replaced the word “Republicans” in her diatribes with “blacks” or “Jews,” she would sound unforgivably racist. And she says the same hateful things about Mitt Romney that Republicans say about President Obama—so who’s right? How can I know?

          I don’t know what to believe, and I’m starting to think I shouldn’t waste my time with politics at all. I don’t mind doing due diligence, but when I can’t trust the answers, then it’s just a guessing game. And every election feels like a blind choice—not between ideas or work ethics or strategies or character, but between marketing campaigns.

          If Jesus had lived in a democracy, how involved would He have been in politics? Even though Rome was a corrupt and sometimes savage government, and the Jewish people were desperate to overthrow it, Jesus always declined their encouragements for Him to get involved. Am I right to take that as an example I should follow?

  3. I also have difficulty understanding politics and which policies will actually help or hurt us as American people. We are falling far behind in education, in efforts to preserve the earth, and our national debt keeps rising.
    I also have tears and embarrassment for the “unprecedented disrespect” given to President Obama. Right on; write on, Melanie.

    • I can’t help thinking that we Christians are less likely to be judged according to who we vote for than how we treat the people we didn’t vote for. I mean, I’m not sure how interested God is in politics. It seems to me He’s more interested in relationships.

      Thanks for your support, Ann.

  4. I have to admit that politics as a whole confuses, saddens, and bothers me. So many “politicians” seem to not really be concerned with the welfare of their constituents, but rather with personal gain and fame, and I just lose patience with all the rhetoric. That said, I, too, am bothered every time people publicly disrespect the person who is currently our nation’s president (regardless of his political party). I would hope for more respectful treatment, not just because he is the president, but because he is a person. Thanks for writing about this so eloquently.

  5. I also want to compliment readers of this blog for the thoughtful way you participate in the conversation here—and I’m not saying that just because the four comments above have all expressed agreement with me! There have been times when LifeLines readers have passionately disagreed with me, and said so in the comments. But the debate has always been healthy, and respectful, and intelligent. I deeply appreciate that.

    I shared this particular post on my Facebook page, where it ignited some less thoughtful, more emotional conversation: http://www.facebook.com/mjongsma/posts/137413863069931?comment_id=239005&notif_t=like . So that made realize again how blessed I am to have such high-quality readers! Thank you for responding to the ideas presented, for explaining how you arrive at your conclusions, and for being open-minded and logical. You guys are awesome.

  6. Reading your article brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for having the courage to speak out what is on so many of our hearts. The disrespect over President Obama’s entire presidency has been so rampant and bold, not just in the privacy of people’s living rooms but in the headlines of newspapers and covers of magazines. I have thought from the beginning that President Obama, having been voted into this office of honor and great responsibility, has angered many and exposed roots of racism and previously hidden feelings superior entitlement. I have been embarrassed that Christians (who propose to speak for all of us) on respected radio stations and television programs have used fear tactics to slander and disrespect our president. It has been so disappointing. So, I commend you Melanie for speaking up and taking a stand against this blatant disrespect of our president in that of our country.

    • Thanks for expressing your support, Irma. As I mentioned on Facebook, I’m not very political, so initiating a political conversation put me in unfamiliar territory. I was surprised by the reaction among the Facebook crowd. I mean, I expected people would disagree with me, but I was surprised that so few were able to articulate why, or even present any answers to my sincere questions.

      I don’t like to label people “racist” —particularly people I have never met in person—but their rhetoric is so emotional, so knee-jerk, so frightened, that I find it hard to call it anything else.

      As you know, one of the things we learn in Common Ground is that the best way to overcome racism is to share a meal with someone who is different from you, ask questions, listen sincerely, be willing to learn. It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? So, like you say, it’s hurtful to see Christians actively undermining those kind of relationship-building basics.

      My favorite Facebook post in all of this was from an old friend who said, “If you want a better President, pray for the one who’s in office.” I am going to be more intentional now about praying for President Obama.

  7. Just got around to reading this. As a person of color, I always knew what the challenges to President Obama were really about… and what continues to underline the current campaign and run for the oval office. It is sad that racism is still such a strong force in our country. It’s even sadder that people are willing to undermine good efforts to destroy one person and hurt others in the process.
    A seminar I attended decades ago about racism offered a practice to help combat racism, and that was to be an advocate for others. Little things that occur every day that go unnoticed by the recipient such as having a clerk ignore the person of color and ask you if they can help you. As an advocate you would acknowledge that the other person was there first. Or letting managers know when their restaurant took an extraordinarily long time to serve people of color sitting in the same vicinity as you who placed their order before you did. Or speaking up when you hear others using racial deragatory remarks. I practice this even with people of my own race.
    My heart goes out to the President- he’s up against “spiritual wickedness in high places.” So my prayers for him must be more intense.

    • Thanks for your input, Ardella. I appreciate your advice about being an advocate; in fact, I would take it one step further and say that even being sympathetic is a place to start. I remember hearing a black woman tell about a friendship she was developing with a white woman. The black woman told the white woman about a painful memory she had of seeing her mother being humiliated in a department store because of her color. The white woman reached across the table, held the black woman’s hand, looked her in the eye, and said, “I am so sorry that happened to you.” As the black woman was telling me about this little exchange, she said, “I was surprised at what a difference that made, just for that pain and injustice to be acknowledged. This white woman wasn’t responsible for it, and she couldn’t do anything about it, but she gave me the respect of simply feeling bad about it with me.”

      Many of us white people want to “move on” because we think that revisiting these old racism wounds will keep them from healing. But I think we have to first acknowledge them sympathetically. And we have to remember that every wound may be in a different stage of healing—some people are ready to move on; others are not; and still others will go back and forth.

      It’s also true that to a large degree, we white people are blind to less obvious instances of racism, such as the ones you describe. We don’t have the sensitivity to those situations, probably because our tendency is to “move on.” So your comment is a reminder to me to keep my eyes open for opportunities to be an advocate—not just against racist treatment, but against any kind of injustice.

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