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Why Won't Sarah Palin and Tea Party Leaders Condemn Racism in Their Midst?

Instead of saying racism is unacceptable in their movement, Palin and Tea Party leaders pretend the NAACP called them all racists. Call it the politics of resentment.
 
 
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This week Tea Party leaders such as Sarah Palin and FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe had the opportunity to prove their commitment to the color-blind society they say they believe in; instead they took the low road, encouraging Tea Party foot soldiers to believe that the NAACP this week condemned them, wholesale, as racist. And, of course, that's not what happened in Kansas City, when the NAACP drafted a resolution addressing racism in the Tea Party movement.

What the NAACP draft resolution pointed out are the individual incidents of racism observed at some Tea Party gatherings, and it asked movement leaders to "repudiate the racist element and activities within the tea party,“ according to Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau. "With increased influence comes increased responsibility," writes NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous on CNN's Web site. "It is long past time for Dick Armey and the Tea Party leadership to take a stance."

It would have been a simple gesture -- a demonstration of true patriotism -- one that in the eyes of most Americans would render the Tea Party movement much more palatable as an alternative to establishment GOP. Just take the NAACP up on its challenge, and condemn any and all expressions of racism that have turned up at movement gatherings, or out of the mouths of self-proclaimed movement leaders. But Tea Party leaders such as Palin and Kibbe apparently decided that greater fortune lay in ginning up the base they already have.

That racism has been in evidence at Tea Party gatherings is irrefutable. There are photographs of signs, and quotations from such Tea Party figures as Mark Williams, who once called Barack Obama "an Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug." (Williams just stepped down as spokesperson for the Tea Party Express in order to lead the charge against the building of a mosque in lower Manhattan because it is too close, in his estimation, to the site of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center. But he says he will continue to work with Tea Party Express.) Williams today described the NAACP as a racist organization that "make[s] more money off of race than any slave-trader." According to several blogs, including the Hillbilly Report, he also ran a satirical letter to Abraham Lincoln on his Web site (now apparently expunged), written in the voice of a "colored" person named "Precious Benjamin Jealous":

Perhaps the most racist point of all in the tea parties is their demand that government “stop raising our taxes.” That is outrageous! How will we coloreds ever get a wide screen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn? Totally racist! The tea party expects coloreds to be productive members of society?

Mr. Lincoln, you were the greatest racist ever. We had a great gig. Three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massa in the house. Please repeal the 13th and 14th Amendments and let us get back to where we belong.

No racism there.

The road taken by Sarah Palin in a Facebook communique was only slightly higher, wherein she accused the NAACP of "claim[ing] that patriotic Americans who stand up for the United States of America’s Constitutional rights are somehow 'racists.' The charge that Tea Party Americans judge people by the color of their skin is false, appalling, and is a regressive and diversionary tactic to change the subject at hand."

Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, the AstroTurfing organization chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, was a bit more clever in his response. In a press release simultaneously condemned racism while declaring the NAACP resolution to be an undeserved attack:

“Racism is repugnant and has no place in American society or our movement,” responded Matt Kibbe, President of FreedomWorks. “The NAACP's attack on the good men and women of the tea party movement is baseless, a political attack that undermines the cause of a colorblind society. Ours is a colorblind movement based on principles not race, and has welcomed with open arms all people to our cause regardless of the color of their skin.”

There has been no public comment yet by Dick Armey.

Resentment Trumps Reason

Why do leaders such as Palin and Kibbe find it so difficult to condemn the sign-maker who carried a placard with the message, "LONG LEGGED MACK-DADDY" -- an internet reference to Obama that is urban African-American vernacular for a tall pimp -- to the front of FreedomWorks' stage at the 9/12 Tea Party march on Washington? Or to refute Glenn Beck's charges that the president has a "deep-seated hatred of white people"? Or to take on the dozens of other expressions of racism that people who claim affiliation with the movement have made?

The only possible answer is that there is a greater percentage for them in encouraging their followers to believe that they are being unfairly charged, and victimized by black people.

It is true that the Tea Party movement is not a movement of hard-core racists -- although some hard-core racists, such as David Duke, may declare themselves to be among its numbers. But polls suggest that Tea Party supporters have less compassion for the plight of African-Americans than the general population. (And even among non-Tea Party supporters there is a hefty percentage who believe as Tea Party folks do on this score.) In April, a poll by the University of Washington found that among Tea Party supporters, only 35 percent agreed with the statement that African-Americans are hard-working. Among whites who did not support the Tea Party, 55 percent agreed.

The New York Times/CBS poll released in April found that, compared to 11 percent of the general public, 25 percent of Tea Party supporters said Barack Obama's policies favored blacks over whites, and 52 percent said that "too much has been made of the problems facing black people," compared to 28 percent of the general public. That doesn't mean these people are racists, but it does speak to a higher level of racial resentment among Tea Party supporters than is prevalent among the general public. And I believe that the most important word in that phrase is not "racial", but "resentment".

Tea Party supporters are heavily invested in the notion that unregulated "free markets" are sacrosanct elements of the American political system, dictated by the deified Founders. When that system collapsed -- due largely to lax regulations -- on the watch of a Republican president, George W. Bush, they experienced a profound sense of cognitive dissonance. Surely, something other than the system in which they believed and invested was to blame.

The Tea Party narrative is ultimately one of victimization. The story goes that the people of the Tea Party movement have been victimized by tyrannical forces that seek to overtax them for the benefit of people who are not like them -- people who do not work as hard, people who are morally lax -- and they are rising up to take their country back from the undeserving people they presume to supporting through their taxes. (The undeserving are never characterized as large corporations that receive government subsidies or tax breaks.)

A few tweaks of the NAACP resolution by right-wing storytellers, such as Palin and Kibbe, casts the Tea Partiers as the victims -- the victims of the black people represented by the NAACP. In fact, Palin claims the NAACP resolution to be an instrument of trauma on the psyches of beleaguered, patriotic Tea Partiers. "To be unjustly accused of association with what Reagan so aptly called that 'legacy of evil' is a traumatizing experience," Palin writes in her Facebook missive, "and one of which the honest, freedom-loving patriots of the Tea Party movement are truly undeserving."

This is a far more pleasing response to the Tea Party base than any repudiation of racism within its ranks could ever be.

The Phantom Crashers

That is why even the demonstrably racist Mark Williams tries to not only place the racist signs seen at some Tea Party gatherings as originating from outside the movement: he pins the blame on mythical liberal monkey-wrenchers. In an interview with MSNBC's Tamron Hall today, Williams said, "Those signs were brought by Crash the Tea Party, the coalition of anti-tea party groups..."

Crash the Tea Party was the (pea)brainchild of one Jason Levin, an ill-fated to put together an infiltration of Tea Party rallies with signs even worse than those we've seen spring organically from the grass-roots. The one thing it did was give right-wingers a means of placing outside themselves any signs of racism tagged as "Tea Party." (From what I can tell, Levin's idea never saw manifestation, and it wasn't even conceived, as Think Progress reports, at the time of the 9/12 march, where racist signage was well-documented.)

FreedomWorks' Matt Kibbe might not want to touch Mark Williams with a 10-foot-pole, but he tried the same trick at the April 15th "tax day" rally FreedomWorks convened on the the grounds of the Washington Monument which I attended.

As I made my way across the lawn in front of the monument, I found a place near the fence that separated the walkway to the stage from the lawn where the tax day protesters were gathered. I looked over my shoulder to find two young men each bearing an unlikely sign. One was an "Obama '08" campaign sign; the other a hand-made sign that read, "Obama is a real American."

Matt Kibbe was at the microphone.

"Have you guys heard of this group, the Tea Party Crashers?" Kibbe asked the crowd. "They're saying they're going to come to our events and pose as Tea Party activists, and spread their messages of racism, their messages of hate. It doesn't belong here. If you're a Tea Party Crasher, get out of here; you don't belong."

"If you see anybody acting bad," he continued, "I want you to surround them, I want you to ask them to stop. If they won't stop, I want you to take their picture, and I want you to post it online."

"Bastards!" somebody shouted from the crowd.

"We're going to hold them accountable," Kibbe said.

All eyes seemed to turn to the young men with the Obama signs. Suddenly, people with video cameras and still cameras turned their way, as if they were the aforementioned undercover infiltrators bearing racist signs. "Get outta here," said one man walking by. "Go stand in the back," he said, pointing to the monument, several football fields away from the stage.

I began talking to them, jotting on my pad. They're students at George Washington University, they said -- Jeff Jacobson of East Brunswick, New Jersey, and Kevin Mikus of Philadelphia. "I chose to do this," Jacobson said, "because I've never been to a Tea Party rally, and I wanted to see what these people are like. And, for the most part, they're ordinary Americans here, just like you and me. We need to remember here that we're all Americans, and we all like to express our views."

A man with a fancy video camera leaned over the fence from the walkway. He wore a badge issued by FreedomWorks emblazoned with the word PRESS. "Are you a reporter?" he said to me. "Did you get their names?"

I pointed to his badge. "You're a reporter. Get them yourself."

The guy asked Jacobson his name. "Philip," he replied.

Victim of Its Own Success

In some ways, the Tea Party movement is the victim of its own strategy. The movement is deliberately diffuse, designed that way to increase its numbers by coalescing people around a sentiment -- that of resentment -- rather than any one specific issue, other than the concept of "small government." This grants a single, overarching identity to people with different pet issues, whether they be gun rights or states' rights or tax reduction, making it easier to herd the cats when the big-money AstroTurfers, such as FreedomWorks, need to assemble a plurality to to win a primary, or pressure legislators on behalf of their anti-regulatory agenda.

But that diffusion comes with its risks, especially if resentment is your organizing principle. By insisting that it is "leaderless", Tea Party personalities make room for the likes of Mark Williams to claim his place as a mouthpiece for Tea Partiers. To her credit, months ago, Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots condemned Mark Williams' "welfare thug" comments about Obama. She could do her movement proud if she took the NAACP up on its challenge, and called for the exit of racist elements from the Tea Party.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.