The NAACP pulled its punch and did not flatly condemn the tea party as racist. The resolution it proposed at its national convention condemned what it called "racist elements" in the party. This was both a tactful and crucial distinction that the NAACP was right to make. Tea party leaders, though incensed at the NAACP for calling the party out on racism, admitted that some of those who have turned up at tea party events have spouted racist slurs. The leaders also say that they have denounced them. That's an arguable point, but the bigger issue is still, is the tea party racist? And what kind of a threat does it represent? The NAACP is only the latest to weigh in on that debate, but it's still the racism issue that sticks in the craw and fuels the widespread public perception that the tea party is chock full of unreconstructed bigots. And that their members have been whipped into a fury by the mere thought of a black man in the White House.
The Obama Joker posters, crude racist scrawls on signs and banners, Confederate flags, Texas Lone Star flags and tea party backed Kentucky GOP Senatorial candidate Rand Paul's kind of- sort of put down of the 1964 civil Rights Act didn't do much to dispel the notion that the tea party is a captive of if not a wholesale creation of racists. And if so, the party represents a mortal danger to civil rights and justice concerns. That's far too simplistic, and worse, it puts a hopeless barrier up to try and understand why the tea party roared on the scene and has had some staying power.
In April, a Winston survey shocked many when it found that four out of ten tea party adherents are not Republicans, but independents and Democrats. A follow-up New York Times survey revealed that tea party backers were not ill educated, low income, blue collar whites, mostly in the South and Heartland. But the majority was middle class, and many are wealthy and highly educated. The single overriding factor that drove them no matter their politics or party was the feeling that the country was going in the wrong direction. This is not merely a case of respondents saying the politically correct thing to survey takers so as not to not appear to be racist.
Nearly two decades ago, the GOP found that the volatile mix of big government and economics could whip frustrated, rebellious, angry whites into a frenzy far better than crude race baiting. Many middle class and working class white males genuinely viewed government as big, insensitive, and a hopeless captive of special interests. Many more actually believed that they were losing ground to minorities and women in the workplace, schools, and in society. This was more perception than reality. Yet it was a real belief.
The target of their anger was big government that tilted unfairly in spending priorities toward social programs that benefited minorities at the expense of hard-working whites. That translated to even more fear, rage and distrust of big government and shouts to fight back against the erosion of personal freedoms.
Tea party activists pound on Obama, the Democrats, big government, the elites, and Wall Street. Yet, they also grouse about abortion, family values, gay rights, and tax cuts and not race.
Right-wing populism --with its mix of xenophobia, loath of government as too liberal, too tax-and-spend, and too permissive, and a killer of personal freedom-- was the engine that powered Reagan and George W. Bush's White House wins. Scores of GOP governors, senators and members of congress have used wedge issues to win office and maintain political dominance. The GOP grassroots brand of populism has stirred millions operating outside the confines of the mainstream Republican Party. In 2008, many of these voters stayed home. Even Sarah Palin wasn't enough to budge them. Their defection was more a personal and visceral reaction to the bumbles of George W. Bush than a radical and permanent sea change in overall white voter sentiment. They were ripe for the tea party movement -- or any movement that keyed their anger and frustration into action.
Tea party leaders push back against the charge that they are racist by endlessly citing popular anger at the perceived big government creep, taxes, runaway spending, and "socialist leaning" Obama administration programs as the sole cause for their rage at Washington and mainstream politicians. The evidence is compelling that this is a sincere if wrongheaded belief. The NAACP then was still right to call out the tea party for saying and doing nothing about the bad actors that spew their racism within the tea party movement. They create mischief and havoc, poison the racial air, and in some cases pose a physical danger. Tea party leaders should welcome, not curse the NAACP for pointing that out.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk show on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.
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