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Just How Racist Is the Tea Party Movement?

Are the openly-racist elements within the Tea Party movement an aberration, or are they more firmly entrenched than tea partiers would care to admit?

OAKLAND, California, 22 Dec (IPS) - It began with Apr. 15 Tax Day protests as thousands rallied in a number of cities across the country.

It continued on into the summer with raucous town hall meetings and gun-toting anti-Barack Obama demonstrators, and appeared to reach its apex with a Sep. 12 march on Washington, which drew nearly 100,000 participants.

Now, however, some in the so-called Tea Party movement are turning their attention toward becoming a force during the 2010 congressional elections.

Several reports on the Sep. 12 event noted it was a nearly all-white crowd and some demonstrators carried an assortment of "homemade" anti-Obama posters, declaring that "The Anti-Christ Is Living in the White House", and calling the president an "Oppressive Bloodsucking Arrogant Muslim Alien".

Despite the fact that it doesn't have a clear identity, and serious questions about the movement's character remain to be answered, the Tea Party movement has been one of the most intriguing political developments of the past year.

Is it a grassroots movement, or has it been organised and funded by Washington-based conservative groups? Could it be both? Is it mainly concerned with economic issues (government spending, taxes, deficits) or are the Christian Right's traditional social issues (abortion, same-sex marriage) of interest to tea partiers?

Are there several -- possibly competing -- ideological tendencies within the movement?

While tea partiers made a lot of noise this past summer, doing their best to put the kybosh on health care reform, is there a future for the movement?

A recent Rasmussen Poll suggests that there very well might be.

In theoretical three-way congressional races between a Democrat, Republican and Tea Party candidate, the Tea Party candidate outpolled the Republican. Democrats attracted 36 percent of the vote; the Tea Party candidate received 23 percent, and the Republican finished third at 18 percent, with 22 percent undecided.

(According to the Rasmussen Reports website, "survey...respondents were asked to assume that the Tea Party movement organized as a new political party. In practical terms, it is unlikely that a true third-party option would perform as well as the polling data indicates. The rules of the election process - written by Republicans and Democrats - provide substantial advantages for the two established major parties.)

Interestingly enough, in an effort to build the movement, some Tea Party organisers have taken to "studying the grassroots training methods of the late Saul Alinsky, the community organizer known for campus protests in the 1960s and who inspired the structure of Obama's presidential campaign," the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported.

Tea Party groups are also using "Tea Party: The Documentary Film" as an organising tool. In a pre-premiere press release, the filmmakers claimed that the film would deal with the "allegations of racism".

And that indeed appears to be the issue that could stymie the movement's growth.

While Tea Party events have become a safe haven for people carrying racist anti-Obama signs, people of colour have stayed away in droves. Members of white nationalist organisations openly participate in Tea Party events and view the movement as a fertile recruiting ground.

Questions about the overlap between tea partiers and anti-immigration activists might be answered when an immigration reform bill is taken up next year.

Are the openly-racist elements within the Tea Party movement an aberration scorned by most Tea Party participants as John Hawkins, who runs a website called RightWingNews, insists, or are they more firmly entrenched than tea partiers would care to admit?

"The tea parties themselves are made up of a diverse bloc of different political elements, and white nationalists have chosen to make a stand inside the tea parties," one expert, Devin Burghart, told IPS.

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