I was on Fox News this morning and, in the wake of the NAACP resolution calling on the Tea Party to denounce its racist extremist elements, the panel debate was about whether or not there are explicit racist elements in the Tea Party. Come on. Of course there are.
The folks denying Obama is a citizen despite a clear birth certificate and birth announcement. The signs that say "we have a lyin' African in the White House" or "monkey see, monkey do" or my personal favorite, "What you talkin' 'bout Willis?" The fact that overt White Supremacist organizations have called for support of the Tea Party movement and Tea Party candidates, including Rand Paul, have explicitly drawn on White Supremacist groups like Stormfront to raise money for their causes. There is overwhelming and undeniable evidence that very ugly, very vitriolic racists have linked up with the Tea Party.
If you Tea Party folks find this accusation so offensive, I would think you'd be all in favor of the NAACP resolution. Seems to me it's just calling on the Tea Party affiliates to do exactly what, defensively, you're doing in reaction to the resolution --- distance yourselves from this explicitly hateful wing of your movement. Why not?
So what's more interesting, I think, than pointing out the obvious existence of explicit racist extremists in the Tea Party is examining whether the Tea Party as a whole, by its very nature, is intentionally, implicitly built on racial resentment. In this regard, the NAACP resolution might be considered tame -- it goes to great pains, as many other liberals have, to suggest that only a few folks in the Tea Party are racist but by no means the entire enterprise. I say: Not so fast...
Now, racism is a loaded word. And it tends to (though by no means needs to) connote personal animus. Colloquially, when we call someone a racist, we generally mean that they think themselves and their race inherently superior to another race by virtue of the color of their skin. I'm not going to wade into the question of whether all Tea Party individual members are racist. For full disclosure, the fact of the matter is I think everyone born in America grows up to unconsciously believe that white people are superior to people of color, just as we grow up to believe men are superior to women, straight people are superior to gay people and so on. No, it's not taught explicitly in schools, but we humans are good at picking up the coded residues of inequality throughout our society. When we see only white men in power, we internalize the idea that only white men should be in power. When most media representations of black folks focus on poverty, drugs and crime, we internalize the idea that black people have a greater inherent tendency toward troubled behavior. This is the way inequality replicates itself --- not by a bunch of folks sitting around in a room and deciding, yes, black people should still have higher rates of unemployment and women should earn only $0.76 for a man's dollar --- but because patterns of injustice play out all around us and, like the proverbial fish swimming in water, we don't notice the bias because it's all we've ever known. We learn to notice race but not racism --- so the swimming in bias continues.
Which means, don't tell me you haven't noticed the President is black...
In this context, racism remains a perfect political trigger point, especially for white Americans. It always has been. From the beginning of American history, the Founders --- who were wealthy white landowners --- tapped into racial resentment and the (then explicit) sense of racial superiority among poor white folks to get buy in for a political system that for a long time disenfranchised not only black folks in America but un-landed white folks too. The argument that you should support policies that help the white elite and privileged still holds sway today, as working class white folks voice support for tax cuts and slashing of government programs the result of which very explicitly helps the rich and hurts the rest of us (including working class white folks themselves).
But over the years, it's become less acceptable to be overtly racist. So code words became the norm. In the 60s it was "state's rights". In the 80s and 90s it was "personal responsibility". And as much as I consider myself a proud American, I'm afraid to say that the code word today is "patriotism". It avoids being explicitly racist while very clearly harkening back to a time when not only all our political leaders were white (and male) but where black folks were enslaved. And it has a very scary, violence-threatening edge --- see, for instance, the campaign video by the thankfully-defeated Alabama Tea Party candidate Rick Barber calling on "good patriots" to "gather your armies".
No, Tea Party folks protest --- this is all about fiscal responsibility and the deficit. Then where were you during George W. Bush's presidency when he took the nation from a record surplus to a record deficit and created the economic mess we're in? Why didn't you question his competence? Or his citizenship? In February 2009, a poll revealed that the deficit ranked sixth on a list of concerns voters have nationally, behind ending the war in Iraq and fixing our broken health care system. The deficit is nothing but a seemingly non-partisan, non-racialized shill. The Tea Party has no problem with deficit spending to finance wars and tax breaks for the rich and big business. But it does have a problem with government spending that is presumably helping poor people and people of color. Never mind that Obama's policies help even more working white folks. Conservatives and the Tea Party are tarnishing the idea of government spending --- and, by extension, government in general --- by implying that government helps black people and immigrants but hurts white people, while big business helps whites. Facts and forty years of economic and social history otherwise be damned!
Now we're in a financial crisis and everyone is feeling the pinch. Our natural human inclination and political necessity is to find someone to blame. If you're a working class white person in this situation, you have two options. First, you can blame the super-rich (mostly) white elite who have rigged our economic and political system for their sole gain over the last 40 years and stuffed their pockets while your real income and quality of life has declined. But frankly, that would mean rejecting the myth that's been propelling you all these years --- that if you worked hard enough, you too could be Bill Gates --- and instead accepting the unfortunate fact that, in America, extreme wealth is much more often a product of inherited position and pre-existing status than hard work. Because that's how the existing elite have written the rules of our economy. But that's a hard pill to swallow. So let's blame people of color and immigrants. You're in the sinking ship that is the American economy and a convenient solution is simply shoving some people overboard. You're not struggling to make ends meet because the economy is fundamentally unfair and rigged against you and most of the rest of us. No! You're struggling because black folks and immigrants are cheating and loafing off government and getting a free ride. Which makes me wonder if you've visited an inner-city housing project or immigrant farmworker camp and seen just how un-cushy some folks have it...
Conservative elites and big business have for some time intentionally triggered the racial resentment option instead of --- gasp! --- exposing their own protection and perpetuation of extreme economic inequality and thus risking all their power and fortune. Luckily for them, just when the economy as we know it was teetering at the precipice of public confidence --- when we finally saw the horrors that deregulation and run amuck Wall Street greed create --- America elected its first black president. It was a perfectly convenient way for the super-rich elite to, again, fan the flames of racial resentment as the scapegoat for our economic mess to avoid the blame being placed where it really belongs. This is why poor people were blamed for bad loans, not lenders. And this is why the Tea Party is questioning Obama's fundamental competence and contending he wants to help black Americans but not whites.
How else can you explain the fact that the Tea Party supposedly grew out of public anger about the big bank bailouts but is now opposing financial sector reforms that would hold big banks accountable and make the financial sector work for average investors again? I do not think most of the Tea Party leaderships' agenda is about explicitly perpetuating racism and racial insensitivity. But I do think the Tea Party is intentionally fanning flames of racial resentment to distract attention from the real problems --- and real solutions --- that would put big business and big banks in check and actually help all working Americans, including white folks.
So, do I agree with the NAACP resolution? Absolutely. With two caveats. First, it's pretty safe for the NAACP to indeed play to its base with this (still relatively tame and incontrovertible) resolution. But what I'd really like to see are white liberal organizations take the same level of responsibility to call out racism in the Tea Party as well as throughout the political and social sphere --- left and right, by the way --- and be strong advocates for racial justice. There are a few examples of white groups and leaders doing this but nearly enough. Second, I do think that the NAACP is clearly drawing on the Tea Party's current publicity to activate NAACP membership and generate attention and energy for the organization's efforts at revitalization. That's understandable, but it's emblematic of a general trend on the left right now to jealously ogle at the seemingly vast and energetic Tea Party on the right while bemoaning the ossified, stale, centralized organizations on the left that are vestiges of vibrant movements of the past but lack that character today. This is exemplified in the debate as to whether the left right now is disappointed and dejected, in part by the rise of the Tea Party at the same time as the failure to pass truly progressive legislation in the context of Obama's centrist approach to policy and power. Much more could be said on this (stay tuned) but suffice it to say I think the left should pay less attention to the Tea Party minority and more attention to the vast majority of Americans who are hurting in this economy and desperate for real solutions, the kind of bold and transformative solutions that frankly neither political party is putting out. Let's build a vast and vibrant new movement around our agenda, not merely on the back of Obama's election or, now, in reaction to the Tea Party.