06/19/2012 10:37 am ET Updated Aug 19, 2012

Can the Tea Party Clean Up Its Racist Act?

Arkansas Tea Party leader Richard Caster gave all the appearances at least publicly of being a man genuinely outraged at what one of his Ozark Tea Party steering committee members said and did. Inge Marler told a meeting of the Ozark Tea Party in Mountain Home, Ark., on the Baxter County Fairgrounds a blatantly racist joke about blacks. And she did it in alleged mock black dialect. When the story hit the national wires, Caster claimed that he was aghast at Marler's joke, raked her over the coals for it, and implied that her resignation from the committee was at least in part the result of his wrath at her. Caster went on to add the obligatory retort that racism has no place in the Tea Party and ticked off the things that the Tea Party stands for and that the media refuses to talk about in its rush to paint the Tea Party as racist. There are problems with that.

Caster's seeming outrage came only after word leaked out about the racist joke. But even more telling was the reaction of the white audience. They erupted in uproarious laughter. The Baxter Bulletin which covered the event noted that not one of the participants called Marler out from the floor about the joke and no one uttered a word of disapproval. The confab quickly went on about its business. Marler has not commented on the joke or her resignation.

Caster's effort to deflect the ever-present charge of racism against Tea Party leaders and followers fell flat not because he personally may have been offended, or because so many chapter members judging from their laughter weren't. It crashes hard against the brutal realities of the Tea Party's past and present actions.

Two years ago the proliferation of Obama Joker posters, crude racist scrawls on signs and banners, Confederate flags, Texas Lone Star flags and then-Tea Party-backed Kentucky GOP senatorial candidate Rand Paul's kind-of-sort-of put down of the 1964 Civil Rights Act implanted the notion that the Tea Party is a captive of, if not a wholesale creation, of racists. In the months since then the racist posters, Confederate flags and racist digs at the president and First Lady Michelle Obama have largely disappeared. Rand Paul is now into his third year as a Kentucky senator. But that doesn't mean that the racism that seemed to define and be a driving force in the Tea Party has disappeared. It has morphed into political respectability. Recently, a white Texas federal inmate got almost as many Democratic votes in the West Virginia primary as Obama. Obama was beat out by a no-name Tennessee lawyer in dozens of counties in Tennessee in the state's Democratic primary elections. Surveys in Ohio showed that many whites still will not back Obama not because of policy issue differences but because of race. These are Democratic voters, bear in mind.

But that's no surprise. In April 2010, a Winston survey 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 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.

The target of their anger was big government they believed 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 leaders, such as Caster, push back hard against the charge that the party is 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. But Marler's joke and the Ozark Tea Party chapter's favorable audience's reaction to it were not an aberration. It stands as a telling indictment that as long as race lurks underneath the carefully crafted veneer of Tea Party moderation the party can't and won't clean up its racist act.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.