Yes, There Is Racism in the Tea Party

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Zaid Jilani, Alex Seitz-Wald, Tanya Somanader


In passing a resolution condemning the racist elements within the Tea Party this week, the NAACP set off a media firestorm over the merits of its charge against the right-wing movement. As the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates notes, critics bemoaned the resolution as a silly stunt that "heightened division" and implied that racist extremists define the membership of the Tea Party. Such a wholesale charge would certainly be exaggerated and inaccurate, but that was not the charge the NAACP made. "The resolution was amended during the debate to specifically ask the Tea Party itself to repudiate the racist elements and activities of the Tea Party." As NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous said, "We're simply asking them to repudiate racist acts and bigotry in their ranks or accept responsibility." But instead of acknowledging and disassociating themselves from the more radical actions of their membership, Tea Party leaders have said that racist elements are non existent. In hurling accusations of racism back at the NAACP, Tea Party leaders have wielded a professed desire for colorblindness as a whitewashing tool. But Tea Party members are employing a defense that only perpetuates the racism they are desperately trying to refute.


YES, THERE IS RACISM: Galled by the NAACP's shot across the bow, Tea Party leaders and sympathizers immediately dismissed the charge of racism in the movement as unrepresentative or unfounded. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin sounded off on Facebook this week, decrying the racism accusation as a "false" and "appalling" insult of which the "patriots of the tea party movement are truly undeserving." Conservative Bishop E.W. Jackson shrugged off the displays of racist tendencies, claiming "people will sometimes say things." He insisted that "the idea that the tea party movement is racist or that it has racist elements that need to be denounced is a nonsensical statement." At this point, the overwhelming evidence of such "radical elements" is enough to discredit any outright dismissal of the NAACP's claim. The North Iowa Tea Party recently launched a billboard that equates President Obama with flagrant racist Adolf Hitler. In April, Tea Party member and New York GOP gubernatorial hopeful Carl Paladino forwarded "racially degrading material" in emails, one of which was posted at the Neo-Nazi Stormfront website. Ironically, the clearest example of endorsed racism was offered by the Tea Party Express chairman and spokesperson Mark Williams. While contending that it's the NAACP that is "bigoted," Williams has made outright bigoted comments, referring to Allah as the "terrorists' monkey God," to a Jewish developer as a "Jewish Uncle Tom," and to Muslims as "semi-human, bipedal primates with no claim to be treated like humans." In responding to the NAACP's charge, he accused the group of being "professional race baiters" who "make more money than any slave trader ever."


THE PURPOSE: The passage of the resolution sparked a deep debate over the NAACP's intentions. Critics quickly decried the resolution as a blanket indictment of all Tea Party members as racist. Conservative African-American activist and GOP nominee for Congress in South Carolina Tim Scott viewed the resolution as "a grave mistake in stereotyping a diverse group of Americans." Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele saw the resolution as "destructive" and an effort to say "the Tea Party movement is racist." But as the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne Jr. pointed out, nothing the NAACP put forward supports that idea. "Its contention is that there are clearly racist strains in the Tea Party and that the movement's leaders and the politicians who profit from its activism should denounce them plainly and unequivocally," he said. Jealous clearly delineated the intention in Kansas City, calling on the Tea Party to "expel the bigots and racists in your ranks or take the responsibility for them and their actions." In his explanation to Dionne, Jealous said that "we have never called the Tea Party racist. We know there are black Tea Party members." The essential point of the resolution was not to erroneously paint Tea Party members as wholesale racists but rather to demand they disassociate with the radicals in their ranks.


HIDING BEHIND COLORBLIND: Despite the evidence to the contrary, Tea Party activists remain aghast at the racism charge and position themselves as the victims of unwarranted accusations. As Coates notes, this "frame-flipping" is a "respectable, more sensible bigotry" that allows practitioners to "change the subject and strawman." A common talking point, salient in the right-wing treatment of race, is a colorblind philosophy that purports race, not racism, is the major problem. References to Martin Luther King, Jr. -- particularly the notion that one should be judged not by the color of his skin but the content of his character -- are favored among colorblind adherents to dismiss the raising of any race issue as divisive. Indeed, Tea Party leaders employed it in their defense against the NAACP in a Politico op-ed this week, stating, "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be proud of this movement. He dreamed of a colorblind society. The tea party is a truly post-racial movement." King's notion of colorblindness, however, was not to say "race shouldn't and doesn't matter" but to convey "what would happen after we as a nation stopped creating disparate outcomes based on race and class." But instead of being upheld as that ideal, the "colorblind racist philosophy" ignores or perpetuates race-based inequality. As blogger Jamelle Bouie points out with the Jim Crow laws and the recent Arizona anti-immigration law, "colorblind mechanisms" are used to craft laws that target minority groups without the explicit mention of race. In other words, if a law doesn't mention race, it isn't racist; if it does, then it is, "even if it's designed to ameliorate racial prejudice." This philosophy also labels anyone who raises race issues as "race baiters" and allows racists "to project their racism onto the minority figures." This is how Tea Party leaders like Mark Williams and David Webb so easily turn the racism charge on the NAACP. Ironically, as is in the case with the Tea Party, by using colorblindness to gloss over charges of racial rhetoric, adherents willingly undermine any effort to achieve the principle they tout.

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