Debunking anti-Obama e-mails

Error-filled chain e-mails designed to scare voters away from Barack Obama are circulating widely on the Internet. Salon deconstructs a pair, one smearing the candidate, the other his wife.

Published August 20, 2008 10:15AM (EDT)

One of the presidential campaign's most pitched battles is already blazing away. But the action won't be coming to you live from Denver or St. Paul in the next two weeks, pollsters can barely track it and -- most important -- there aren't any rules.

For months, anonymous e-mail chain letters, blog posts and message board items attacking Barack Obama have been flying around the country. Obama's campaign is concerned enough about the rumor mill to devote an entire Web site to fighting them. While some of the messages are blatantly false, the most dangerous ones mix lies and out-of-context facts just well enough to sound legit, playing not too subtly on racism and ignorance to make the truths they include sound sinister. (Now a book that basically collects some of the bogus accusations by Jerome Corsi is sitting at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.)

Two such messages, circulating by e-mail and popping up in comments on blogs for months, are reproduced below -- and annotated and debunked, point by point -- to illustrate the tactics Obama's been up against for most of the campaign. The first e-mail attacks the candidate's wife, attempting to paint Michelle Obama –- and by extension, Barack Obama -- as an America-hating black separatist radical. Democratic pollsters say many voters don't know much about Michelle Obama. This e-mail, which began circulating during the Democratic primaries, seems to be a deliberate attempt to fill in a mostly blank mental canvas with negative associations before the Obama campaign can tell her story itself.

A second, more recent e-mail, received just a few days ago, shows that the spurious but very durable belief that Obama is a Muslim continues to ricochet around the Internet. Follow along (any typos and punctuation errors are in the original e-mails) as we deconstruct two anti-Obama e-mails:

According to, Princeton was requested to put a "restriction" on distribution of any copies of the thesis of Michelle Obama (a/k/a Michelle laVaughn Robinson) saying it could not be made available until November 5, 2008 but when it was published on a political website they decided they would lift the restriction.

Right from the start, the message purports to be authenticated by Snopes, the urban-legend-busting site that's already compiled a list of nearly two dozen phony allegations against Obama. By the time the e-mail started circulating widely, though, Snopes had already debunked most of it, and Princeton's restriction had already been lifted. It wasn't clear why Princeton refused to release it, but it eventually got wide distribution to the media after Politico published it. And how did it obtain a copy? It asked the campaign, which promptly handed it over.

Subj: Thesis - Michele Obama aka Michelle LaVaughn Robinson


In her senior thesis at Princeton, Michele Obama, the wife of Barack Obama stated that America was a nation founded on "crime and hatred." Moreover, she stated that whites in America were "ineradicably racist."

Actually, that's a lie -- she doesn't make either of those statements anywhere in the 64-page thesis or the appendices, which tabulate answers to a survey she conducted of black Princeton alumni and then include the survey form. The thesis, entitled "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community," comes to a conclusion that might not shock most college graduates -- black students identified strongly with other blacks while at Princeton, but after graduating, their attachment to the black community decreased. (If there's a major flaw with the thesis, it probably lies in how Obama mostly brushes off class issues within the black community; Princeton alumni, no matter what race they are, have more in common with other elite university graduates than with anyone else.)

But rather than revealing "MILITANT RACISM" (or even the less threatening lowercase version), the thesis actually shows Obama rejecting stereotypes. "An individual who is more personally comfortable with Blacks than with Whites on an individual level need not hold political ideologies which support the separation of Blacks and Whites on a community level," she writes.

The 1985 thesis, titled "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community" was written under her maiden name, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson.

Like the opening reference to "Michelle Obama (a/k/a Michelle laVaughn Robinson)," the line about the thesis being "written under her maiden name" seems designed to imply an attempt by Obama to hide her association with her husband when she wrote the thesis. Of course, in reality, Michelle Obama was 21 years old when the thesis was published, and the Obamas wouldn't marry until seven years later. Throughout the e-mail, the author keeps referring to "Mrs. Obama" to make readers think Barack Obama had something to do with his wife's alleged racism.

Michelle Obama stated in her thesis that to "Whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, she will always be Black first ..." However, it was reported by a fellow black classmate, "If those 'Whites at Princeton' really saw Michelle as one who always would 'be Black first,' it seems that she gave them that impression."

It's not clear who this "fellow black classmate" is or whether this quote is real. It certainly doesn't appear in the thesis, and a Nexis search for a phrase like the one the e-mail quotes only turns up two hits, both of which seem to be quoting the e-mail.

Most alarming is Michele Obama's use of the terms "separationist" and "integrationist" when describing the views of black people. Mrs. Obama clearly identifies herself with a "separationist" view of race.

"By actually working with the Black lower class or within their communities as a result of their ideologies, a separationist may better understand the desperation of their situation and feel more hopeless about a resolution as opposed to an integrationist who is ignorant to their plight."

Obama writes that the path she chose by attending Princeton would likely lead to her "further integration and/or assimilation into a white cultural and social structure that will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant ..."

Obama didn't invent the "separationist" and "integrationist" terms, though the e-mail makes it sound like she did. The history of the terms is detailed in a long literature review at the beginning of the thesis. More important, Michelle Obama doesn't endorse either view anywhere in the text.

The e-mail continues:

Michele Obama clearly has a chip on her shoulder. Not only does she see separate black and white societies in America, but she elevates black over white in her world. Here is another passage that is uncomfortable and ominous in meaning: "There was no doubt in my mind that as a member of the black community, I am obligated to this community and will utilize all of my present and future resources to benefit the black community first and foremost." What is Michelle Obama planning to do with her future resources if she's first lady that will elevate black over white in America?

This isn't particularly subtle, even by the standards of the e-mail. The message is almost as clear as in the rumors, which the campaign denied, that some tape exists of Michelle Obama ranting about "whitey" -- it's basically, "watch out, white people." (And cue up the image of Obama with an Afro and a machine gun, burning an American flag as she fist-bumps her husband in the Oval Office.)

But in the actual text of the thesis, Obama had distanced herself from the "ominous" passage cited here. The line the e-mail quotes actually begins, "Earlier in my college career," and segues into a section where Obama acknowledges that her time at Princeton had given her the same kind of bourgeois values as her classmates of any race -- she was mostly concerned with getting a prestigious job or going to another elite school for a graduate degree.

The following passage appears to be a call to arms for affirmative action policies that could be the hallmark of an Obama administration. "Predominately white universities like Princeton are socially and academically designed to cater to the needs of the white students comprising the bulk of their enrollments."

That's a stretch; if anything, that line calls for universities to do more to help nonwhite students cope with their minority status on campus (and given that virtually every university in the country has an office that does just that, it's hardly a radical idea). Meanwhile, Barack Obama has been open enough to the idea of changing race-based affirmative action that it's drawing some attention. When his daughters apply to college, Obama has said, they shouldn't benefit from affirmative action admissions programs, because of their privileged upbringing.

The conclusion of her thesis is alarming. Michelle Obama's poll of black alumni concludes that other black students at Princeton do not share her obsession with blackness. But rather than celebrate, she is horrified that black alumni identify with our common American culture more than they value the color of their skin. "I hoped that these findings would help me conclude that despite the high degree of identification with whites as a result of the educational and occupational path that black Princeton alumni follow, the alumni would still maintain a certain level of identification with the black community. However, these findings do not support this possibility." Is it no wonder that most black alumni ignored her racist questionnaire? Only 89 students responded out of 400 who were asked for input.

This section takes an accurate quote, twists it into a different context, and runs with it. Obama isn't "horrified" in the thesis; while she finds that black Princeton alumni identify less with the black community than they did in college, she realizes that doesn't mean much. "I now believe it is incorrect to assume that just because a Black individual does not enjoy or choose to participate in the culture of his people, that that individual is not interested in benefiting that group of people," she writes just after the line quoted. "The inability to identify with one aspect of the Black culture does not necessarily cause apathy towards Blacks in general."

Michelle Obama does not look into a crowd of Obama supporters and see Americans. She sees black people and white people eternally conflicted with one another. The thesis provides a trove of Mrs. Obama's thoughts and world view seen through a race-based prism. This is a very divisive view for a potential first lady that would do untold damage to race relations in this country in a Barack Obama administration.

Michelle Obama's intellectually refined racism should give all Americans pause for deep concern. Now maybe she's changed, but she sure sounds like someone with an axe to grind with America. Will the press let Michelle get a free pass over her obviously racist comment about American whites? I am sure that it will.

Up to the very end, the author wants you to believe that the thesis -- which has been misrepresented throughout the e-mail -- proves something conclusive about Obama's worldview now. Never mind what the thesis actually says; the author's cards are on the table, and they're of the race variety. Under the guise of sounding concerned about Obama's anti-white racism, the e-mail plays on racism of a more conventional kind.

The final paragraph hits the trifecta: Not only is Obama an intellectual (and so automatically suspect), she's also a racist and anti-American. As the Democratic convention begins next week, no wonder you'll see a heavy emphasis on both Obamas' backgrounds and life stories (and a prime time speech by Michelle on the opening night). For the potentially millions of people who've read this e-mail or one like it, it'll be their first chance to meet Michelle Obama, someone they may believe they already know.

The other e-mail goes after Barack Obama directly instead of his wife, but to get there, it smears all American Muslims first (after all, the author says, Obama's a Muslim, too). It's less based on truth than the Michelle Obama e-mail, and part of it seems to be clipped from an earlier more generic anti-Muslim message:


This is very interesting and we all need to read it From start to Finish and send it on to anyone who will read It. Maybe this is why our American Muslims are so quiet and Not speaking out about any atrocities. Can a good Muslim be A good American? This question was forwarded to a friend who worked in Saudi Arabia for 20 years. The following is his reply:

The first section of this e-mail appears to come from an anti-Muslim message that did not single out Obama as a target. Snopes has a debate on some of this message dating back to August 2006, months before Obama entered the presidential race. Resourcefully, someone seems to have just grafted a few lines of anti-Obama commentary onto some anti-Muslim screed and sent it back out onto the Internet.

The first tipoff that something's wrong with the e-mail's facts is the idea that American Muslims are "so quiet" and "not speaking out about any atrocities." Plenty of American Muslims did just that. The basic question the e-mail poses, "Can a good Muslim be a good American?" is blatantly racist, and the author's "friend who worked in Saudi Arabia for 20 years" is a questionable authority to rely on (if he exists).

Theologically -- no … Because his allegiance is To Allah, The moon God of Arabia

Religiously -- no … Because no other religion is Accepted by His Allah except Islam (Quran, 2:256) (Koran)

Scripturally -- no … Because his allegiance is to The five Pillars of Islam and the Quran.

These first three lines essentially disqualify Muslims from being "good Americans" because they're Muslims. It's true, Muslims worship Allah, accept Islam and have a scriptural allegiance to the Quran and the five pillars of their religion. But besides the fact that a theological test for "American-ness" would be unconstitutional, the author gets some basic facts wrong.

There are some fundamentalist Christians who have decided that Allah is actually a pagan moon god who was worshiped on the Arabian peninsula before the rise of Islam. But Muslims (and most scholars) believe Allah is the same God that Jews and Christians worship -- the word means "God" in Arabic. And mainstream Islam considers Christians and Jews to be fellow "People of the Book." Their religions are acceptable, being monotheistic, though Muslims believe Mohammed was God's last and greatest prophet.

Geographically -- no ... Because his allegiance is to Mecca, to which he turns in prayer five times a day.

This is true -- devout Muslims pray five times a day, facing Mecca -- but irrelevant to the question of loyalty. How do you show geographic loyalty to the United States? What does geographic loyalty even mean? Nothing, but the line sounds authoritative.

Socially -- no … Because his allegiance to Islam forbids him to make friends with Christians or Jews.

This isn't true. There are lines in the Quran warning Muslims not to be allies with Christians or Jews, but others also say Muslims should treat non-Muslims equitably and kindly, as long as they aren't actively fighting against Islam.

Politically -- no … Because he must submit to the Mullahs (spiritual leaders), who teach annihilation of Israel and destruction of America, the great Satan.

Yes, many radical clerics do preach the destruction of Israel and America. And some of them are mullahs (though that's a title usually used only with Shiite Muslim clerics, who are pretty rare in Saudi Arabia). But just as not all Christians are obliged to listen to the rantings of John Hagee, Muslims aren't obligated to listen to radical clerics.

Domestically -- no … Because he is instructed to marry four women and beat and scourge his wife when she disobeys him (Quran 4:34)

The Quran does allow men to marry four wives, as Mohammed did. But the verse the author cites specifically says that's only OK if men are sure they can "do justice" to all four. (There are some lines elsewhere that appear to suggest beating wives if they don't obey their husbands, but there are also lines in the Bible that mandate animal sacrifice and the murder of adulterous women.)

Intellectually -- no … Because he cannot accept the American Constitution since it is based on Biblical Principles and he believes the Bible to be corrupt.

Philosophically -- no … Because Islam, Muhammad, And the Quran does not allow freedom of religion and expression. Democracy and Islam cannot co-exist. Every Muslim government is either dictatorial or autocratic.

The Constitution isn't explicitly based on the Bible. The author may be under the sway of Christian scholars who want to reinvent America's Founding Fathers, many of whom were Deists, as Christian fundamentalists. There's also no reason that Muslims can't intellectually understand its principles. Islam does allow freedom of religion (if you're monotheistic), and Turkey -- a Muslim nation -- is a democracy. As is India, home to more than 150 million Muslims.

Spiritually -- no … Because when we declare "one nation under God," the Christian's God is loving and kind, while Allah is NEVER referred to as Heavenly father, nor is he ever called love in The Quran's 99 excellent names.

This isn't true. One of Allah's names for himself is "the loving." The phrasing here would also seem to mean that only Christians can be "good Americans."

Therefore, after much study and deliberation …

Perhaps we should be very suspicious of ALL MUSLIMS In this country. -- They obviously cannot be both "good" Muslims and good Americans.

Call it what you wish it's still the truth. You Had better believe it. The more who understand this, the Better it will be for our country and our future. The Religious war is bigger than we know or understand …

And Barack Hussein Obama, a Muslim, wants to be our President? You have GOT to be kidding! Wake up America!

With a few simple ellipses, an error-filled e-mail playing on fear about Muslims becomes an error-filled e-mail playing on fear about Barack Obama. After everything you've just read about the nefarious Muslims, why would you vote for one?

Of course, Obama isn't a Muslim. Obama's father and stepfather were Muslim, and plenty of Muslims share his Arabic-sounding middle name. But Obama wasn't raised as part of any religion -- he attended a Catholic school, as well as a public school, while growing up in largely Muslim Indonesia. His mother's family were Christians, and Obama belonged to a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago for years. (Perhaps you've heard something about it?)

Obama even says if he wins the election, he will be sworn in on the Quran -- not a Bible!

Footnote: He was sworn in on the Quran for his current office and he refuses to pledge allegiance to the United States or put his hand over his heart when the National Anthem is played!

Again, not true. The author has managed to compress most of the better-known anti-Obama smears into one e-mail, with a footnote for a veneer of scholarship. Obama was sworn into "his current office" (the U.S. Senate) on a Bible, and he's certain to be sworn in as president the same way if he wins.

The national anthem and Pledge of Allegiance line has been kicking around in other erroneous e-mails for months. Obama was even asked about it at a Pennsylvania debate against Hillary Clinton in April. It's based on a photo of Obama without his hand over his heart during the national anthem at an Iowa campaign event. Obama says his grandfather, a World War II veteran, taught him to put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance but to sing during the anthem, and besides, his campaign has provided other images of Obama saluting the flag during the anthem.

The Muslims have said they will destroy us from within. Hello! Having a Muslim president would seem to fit the bill! Will you trust this man with our national secrets?



Please don't delete this until you send it on.

Many people have sent it on.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

MORE FROM Mike Madden

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections Barack Obama Michelle Obama Paul Shirley