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CNN Green Party Town Hall focuses on whether Barack Obama is an Uncle Tom

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uncle tom's cabin

Jill Stein’s vice presidential running mate, Ajamu Baraka, defended his decision to call President Barack Obama an “Uncle Tom president,” saying he “stands by” his choice to use the racially charged slur he’s used to describe America’s first black president.

The moment came Wednesday night during CNN’s Green Party town hall, when moderator Chris Cuomo asked Baraka why he has used the term “Uncle Tom” to criticize Obama’s presidency.

“There are legitimate arguments to be made,” Cuomo said about Obama’s presidency. “But you called him an Uncle Tom. Now that’s a little bit different than making legitimate arguments.”

But Baraka defended using the slur — a term defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as a black person “overeager to win the approval of whites” — by saying he used it while speaking to a “specialized audience who understood the context and reason why I framed it in that way.”

Cuomo, however, wasn’t having that argument. . .

“Is there any good context?” Cuomo asked Baraka of the term.

“What I wanted to do was basically to tell people who had this hope in Barack Obama, that if we were concerned and serious about how we could displace white power, we had to demystify the policies and the positions of this individual,” Baraka said. “So that was how it got framed, to shock people into a more critical look at this individual, and that’s how I did it, and I stand by that.”

Cuomo then turned to Stein to ask whether she agrees with her running mate’s decision to use a slur against Obama.

Stein did not disavow Baraka’s response, giving a vague answer with buzzwords.

“I am so grateful that we have an opportunity to go beyond sound bites,” Stein said. “And I understand Ajamu’s passion, his frustration and his struggle. And I also understand his transcendence and the way in which this is a challenge to us all right now — to both feel the passion of our struggle but also to be capable of transcending it and connecting with each other, healing our wounds and forging a bigger vision and a bigger community.”

She went on to say that she’s “worked with Ajamu for years” and that she has “never heard him use derogatory language.”

A couple of things:

(1) It’s hard to overstate what a marginal presence the Green Party is in US politics at present. At the presidential level, Stein got 0.36% of the vote in 2012 — about a third as much as the Libertarian Party; the gap between the Greens and the Libertarians was bigger than the gap, in the other direction, between the Greens and the Constitution Party, which I don’t imagine is going to be featured in any prime time Town Hall meetings on CNN any time soon.

And the party’s essential irrelevance at the presidential level is replicated at pretty much every level of American politics above a volunteer city commission here or there. Which naturally raises the question of why Stein et. al. merit as much media coverage as they’re getting.

(2) This is a candidate for the most irrelevant observation of the year, practically speaking, but it’s not quite clear that Ajamu Baraka is actually eligible, constitutionally speaking, to become vice president.

Jill Stein, the presumptive Green Party nominee, just named her vice presidential running mate–Ajamu Baraka, a Chicago native and human rights activist who now lives in Atlanta.

But quite recently, Mr. Baraka lived in Colombia. A 2015 blog entry on his site describes him as someone who lives in Cali, Colombia. And other media mentions around that time mention him as someone from Colombia.

The eligibility concern relates his residency at that time. (Recall that vice presidents must be not be ineligible for the office of president.) Article II provides among other qualifications that a candidate must be “fourteen Years a resident within the United States.”

There is some evidence, but certainly not unanimous, that these fourteen years must be accumulated consecutively prior to securing office. But there is some evidence that the requirement can be met cumulatively, over the total course of one’s life prior to securing the office.

Additionally, there is the question of what “resident” means. Does living for a stretch of time in Colombia mean one is no longer a “resident” of the United States? It may well mean something like domicile, and a temporary, even extended, presence in another country would not thwart such residency. (James Ho succinctly summarizes some of these views here.)

In short, there is probably good evidence that Mr. Baraka was a resident fourteen years consecutively, and even if he wasn’t, that the Constitution permits such residence to be acquired cumulatively. But in the event one concludes that the Constitution requires consecutive residency and that his time in Colombia broke up that residency, then Mr. Baraka would be ineligible.

The odds that this will ever matter to anyone are roughly the same as the odds of Donald Trump winning the Nobel Prize in physics next year, but it’s yet another odd little reminder of what a mess the Constitution’s presidential eligibility requirements are.

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