THE BLOG
05/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tea Parties: Brewing Racial Resentment

The quickest way to know you're onto the truth is when Fox News rushes to argue otherwise. Yesterday, Bill O'Reilly complained, "It's clear that some on the American left fear the Tea Party movement and that there is a media strategy to brand Tea Party people as racist." Uh, yeah. 'Cuz they are.

Working and middle class white people are facing very real, terrifying economic conditions that have been caused by a corporate-controlled economy which depends on their suffering as well as their allegiance. The only way to maintain that allegiance is to manufacture something scarier to distract us. Very real demographic changes, including immigration, and the diversifying of the American population--the pinnacle of which, both symbolically and literally, is our nation's first non-white president--are the latest incarnation of the ruling class' favorite historic bogeyman of racial resentment.

Over two hundred years ago, the wealthy landed class fanned racial resentment to persuade poor whites to support slavery, which cemented their own economic oppression but made them feel socially superior at least to black slaves. And now, as mass foreclosures, falling retirement portfolios (or none to begin with), stagnant wages, crumbling public schools and the very real fears for the economic and environmental futures of our children plague everyone, white, black and brown, across our nation, it is all too easy for Right wing economic and political leaders to exploit generations-old attitudes of racial superiority among whites to continue to divide and conquer all of us rather than risk a real threat to the system that serves elite interests so well.

There are specific examples of the racist link between the Tea Party and white supremacist organizing in the United States. The continual questioning of Obama's nationality and religion are explicitly racially tinged. Posters at the Tea Party featured swastikas and other explicit racist rhetoric. And White Nationalist organizations, websites for which saw their traffic jump astronomically following President Obama's election, have played active leadership and recruitment roles at Tea Party rallies. A member of the White Nationalist mega site Stormfront, posting in anticipation of the inaugural national Tea Party protests in 2009, instantly presaged alignment: "What's so encouraging is that the organizers and participants are pre-dominantly whites... Old white America. The historical, traditional population." Stormfront members organized online to recruit at the Tea Parties, where they reported back that participants were highly receptive.

But more significant than these specific examples are the broader links in the conceptual themes into which both groups are explicitly tapping. "Old white America" evokes images circa 1773, i.e., the Boston Tea Party. The self-description "patriots" was notably used by white separatist militia groups in the 1990s. References to "states rights" and "heirs to the republic" in the Tea Party Patriots website are direct references to pro-segregation, supremacist code words of the 1950s and 60s.

Violent White Nationalism in the United States has risen or fallen--though never disappeared--depending on the need for visible scapegoats to redirect moments of possible revolt against the status quo. The Irish. The Italians. The Chinese. The Japanese. The Jews. "Welfare queens." Gay men and lesbians. Muslims. Latinos. The characters change but the point stays the same. And while our nation's history has been continually tainted by racism, explicit racial separatism and White Nationalism has flared in the wake of Obama's candidacy and election. The Tea Party's leaders are consciously tapping into this recurrent strand of violent racism for the emotional fuel behind their movement.

Do you really think people are all of the sudden that angry about deficit spending? No. The Tea Party activists operate on a presumed racial equation that white people are taxed to support government spending on Latino immigrants and poor black people. The fact that most government programs--including health care reform--far and above benefit poor and working class white people is irrelevant. The Tea Party becomes a bottomless cup for fears of economic and ethnic displacement in a politically-correct era. Explicit racism is taboo. Attacking government and Obama as proxies is fair game.

So RNC chair Michael Steele calls to put Nancy Pelosi "on the firing line" as gun sales have hit record spikes since Obama's election. Sarah Palin says, "Don't Retreat, Instead -- RELOAD!" and days later bricks and bullets fly through Congressional Democrats' offices. House Minority Leader John Boehner calls health care reform "Armageddon" and days later, a separatist cult is arrested for plotting to violently destroy the federal government in order to bring about the "end of days". Conservatives' rush to deny that their violent rhetoric plays any role in causing violent acts should be offensive to even the dimmest of kindergarteners.

O'Reilly advised, "The Tea Party would be wise to publicly disassociate itself from hateful rhetoric." But why would it, when race-tinged hate has been the Tea Party's most effective tool? It's hard to distance yourself from suggestively violent, divisive, extremist, racist rhetoric when you've so intentionally embraced it as your own.