03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Martin Luther King Would Have Loved the Teabaggers, Not Called Them Racists

A few weeks ago, I attended the teabagger protests in DC. The thing I noticed the most about the folks there was that, for the most part, they were friendly, nice, hardworking people. Sure, there were some crazies; sure, there were some racists. For the most part, though, they looked like the type of folks I grew up with in the labor movement, coming to DC to enjoy a protest and spend the rest of the weekend taking in some monuments and museums. These weren't rich suburbanites; the teabaggers I saw were mainly poor people, whose trip to DC were probably the only vacation they would be able to afford this year.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I had known many poor white people, but they all seemed to vote for Democrats because they had manufacturing jobs and were union members. Gradually, though, the unions -- which were a means of educating people about politics -- evaporated under the anti-union policies of Democrats and Republicans alike. I saw more and more strong Democrats turn Republican as they began to distrust a Democratic Party that took away their jobs with policies like NAFTA and one after another massive corporate giveaway.

Even recently, my own grandmother, a lifelong Democrat, admitted to my mother that she was unsure about health care reform because of the "death panels."

Is my grandmother some sort of stupid, racist, teabagging reactionary? I think not. This is the woman who, after all, told me stories about how she was called a "Mediterranean n**ger" growing up and was sympathetic to the experience of African-Americans. But has my grandmother been lied to by Democrats and Republicans alike and seen her standard of living decline over the past 30 years? Sure. And has this led my grandmother to the point where she is so confused about what to believe that she simply doesn't trust government because, mostly, what government has done is hurt her over the last 30 years? Without a doubt.

As Sara Robinson argues in her must-read piece analyzing the rise of the teabagger movement among working-class Americans:

No democracy in history has ever survived with our current levels of inequality. There's no reason for the middle and working classes to trust anything about a system that's so clearly rigged to suck money straight out of their pockets into the tax-free offshore bank accounts of the wealthy - who, of course, turn right around and use that money to buy off our government, so they can suck up even more of our economy for themselves.

People are confused. They are angry, and they have little faith in government.

As the president pointed out in his speech, we are all guilty of a racial subconscious on one level, but few of us intentionally want to hate another person. People get very offended when you call them racists because most people don't intend or want to act in a racist matter.

I, myself, am guilty of have experiencing racist thoughts at time. But I have marched in civil rights marches, dated women of color and shared an apartment for a very long time with a person of color. However, I was outraged when the head of an organization told me that they would like to hire me, but they couldn't because they needed to hire a person of color.

Likewise, I cringed a few weeks ago when a well-off, South Asian colleague of mine at a strategy meeting stood up and said, "Forget about white working class males. We need to expose them for the racist scumbags that they are."

As a white male from a working-class background, I thought to myself, "Who the hell is this guy, to get up and say that the folks I grew up with -- my family members -- are 'racists scumbags.'" It made me feel defensive.

I thought to myself, "I bet you the only white working-class males this guy interacts with are the guys serving him hamburgers on the way to his vacations in the Hamptons." My immediate reaction was not to listen to him, but to figure out a way to attack back.

Likewise, the progressive movement -- in particular, progressive bloggers -- are making a big mistake in attacking the other side by calling them racist. It merely makes them feel defensive because nobody wants to listen to someone who is attacking them with such an emotional bomb.

Its makes the teabaggers resent the progressive movement and view them as rich, college-educated elitists that only want to tell them how wrong they are.

Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are giving white working-class males a huge hug. They are saying, "Come here; we understood you; we are one of you. We will fight on your behalf against elitist liberals who call you names." Working-class people, especially men, respond by listening to Glenn Beck even more and attacking progressives. It's an endless, destructive cycle in which no one wins.

As Martin Luther King explained in his sermon "The Strength To Love":

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.

During the whole dialog on teabaggers, I never heard the narrative of why these poor people were turning up at the town halls. They were turning up because they were scared of change, because the only change they have known is their standard of living dramatically decreasing over the last 30 years. I never heard anyone talk about how most of the teabaggers are the people that need health care reform the most.

In fact, we got off message entirely. We stopped talking about health care reform altogether. We failed to articulate a progressive vision these people might buy into. We took an eye for an eye, leaving everyone blind.

Very few of us made any attempt to really reach out and embrace these teabaggers on the issues that we share with them. Many of their concerns about the bailout, NAFTA-style trade deals and the general loss of trust in government are core progressive issues. We could lock arms with the teabaggers and form a powerful alliance, but, instead, we attack our potential allies because we do not take the time to engage them.

As Martin Luther King explains:

Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they cannot communicate.

If we don't communicate with the white working class, we are never going to achieve true progressive change. We are just going to attack each other in an endless cycle and fail to realize our shared values.

It's time that we raise up above immature name calling and start talking to the teabaggers. Together, we can win!