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The Tea Parties: Built on Fear, Violence and Race Resentment

Racism and xenophobia have been central to the Tea Party movement from the start; while not all of them are racist, they swim in a sea of white racial resentment.

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Returning to the seeds planted by Glenn Beck, the belief that President Obama is illegitimate has a secondary and perhaps even more dangerous implication. Because Obama is not really eligible to be president, his office is not worthy of respect. Obama’s presidency is itself illegitimate. By extension, the State is not worthy of respect or loyalty from its citizens.

For example, in the debate around health care reform we have seen anachronistic phrases such as states' rights, nullification and intercession batted about by the right-wing and the Tea Parties as legitimate rationales for citizens and local governments to “resist” federal authority. The rhetoric of the Republicans and the Tea Party in response to Obama’s efforts to pass health care reform is eerily reminiscent of that used by opponents of the civil rights movement.

Not surprisingly, the right-wing media and the Republican Party are seemingly immune from accepting the fact that racist elements are operating in the Tea Party movement. Just as they have reframed language in a disturbing type of Orwellian “newspeak” (in which, for example, according to Glenn Beck, progressives are now “fascists” and Hitler was really a “liberal progressive") the obvious signals to white racism at the Tea Party events are dismissed or minimized as irrelevant or non-existent. Predictably, those who call attention to the use of racially incendiary language, signs and posters that speak to the worst stereotypes of Obama as an “African” or “witchdoctor,” and caricatures of the president as a racial terrorist in the guise of Adolf Hitler, are overly sensitive, and/or are playing the omnipresent and devious “race card.”

The few people of color at these events are trotted out like mascots who work to immunize the Tea Party from charges of racism. The black and brown faces of the right-wing also serve as fetishes that legitimize any rhetoric, however racist, xenophobic or bigoted by the conservative establishment or its followers. See Michael Steele’s excuse-making for the racist behavior of the Tea Party. In the extreme, conservatives believe themselves to be “colorblind” by definition. In this twisted understanding of American politics and society, it is in reality white men during the age of Obama who are the most aggrieved victims of some imagined type of reverse racism as they suffer under the jackboots of Jim Crow 2.0.

A quick survey of Fox News, the Republican establishment, or the right-wing blogosphere reveals a similar meme about the racist happenings at the Washington anti-health care rally: There were no real racists at the event; if racist language was used it was because the Tea Partiers were provoked and angry; Democrats are the real racists and likely planted agent provocateurs among the crowd; Barack Obama and the Democrats want the Tea Party to be violent and if violence comes it was duly provoked; and my favorite -- we didn’t hear any racial or homophobic language so it could not have possibly happened because conservatives and the Tea Party are incapable of such things.

In a testament to the durability and power of the right-wing media establishment, this self-contained world operates within its own bubble. It enables a willful myopia that is incapable of acknowledging and confronting racism even where obvious. While superficially unrelated to issues of race and justice, the conservative media bubble also enables a set of beliefs about social reality more generally that are patently and demonstrably untrue: Death panels will come into being if the health care bill is passed; Obama is foreign-born and not eligible to be president; Obama is a socialist; he is doing many things that Hitler did; ACORN stole the election for Obama; Iraq was connected to Al-Qaeda and September 11th; And weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. This haze nourishes the toxic political environment in which Tea Party racism finds safe harbor.

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