Is the tea party racist?

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

In the past year, a clearer im­age of the tea party move­ment has come into fo­cus. Af­ter waves of vivid yet anec­do­tal glimpses in the news of these an­gry con­ser­va­tives, we gained a more quan­ti­fied pic­ture via a sur­vey by The New York Times that re­vealed them to be al­most 90 per­cent white, pre­dom­i­nantly male and gen­er­ally bet­ter off eco­nom­i­cally than the nation at large. The sig­nif­i­cance of their white­ness has been a fluc­tu­at­ing topic of dis­cus­sion, now drawn sharply into view by the NAACP’s res­o­lu­tion, passed Tues­day at its con­ven­tion in Kansas City, con­demn­ing “big­oted el­e­ments within the Tea Party.” Not sur­pris­ingly, whites as­so­ci­ated with the move­ment have re­sponded an­i­mat­edly to the res­o­lu­tion. Sarah Palin de­cried it as a “spu­ri­ous charge of racism,” con­stru­ing it as “false, ap­palling, and is a re­gres­sive and di­ver­sion­ary tac­tic to change the sub­ject at hand.”

But what is “the sub­ject at hand” when it comes to the tea party? Its sup­port­ers main­tain that their con­cerns are eco­nomic and linked to the lib­eral ori­en­ta­tion of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Yet it is hard not to rec­og­nize a racial tex­ture to these con­cerns, given that they are so keenly tied to the nation’s first African Amer­i­can pres­i­dent. Many com­men­ta­tors have parsed their pub­lic state­ments look­ing for ev­i­dence of racial an­i­mus, yet, as whites so of­ten do, mem­bers have in­sisted that it is not about race. So how do we talk about the po­ten­tial racial di­men­sions of this move­ment, and is “racism” the best way to char­ac­ter­ize them? Those ques­tions con­cern more than the tea party; they re­late to our pub­lic cul­ture as we strive to make sense of how race mat­ters.

That ques­tion is chal­leng­ing be­cause we still tend to think of race and racism as a fairly clear-cut, black-and-white mat­ter. Peo­ple ei­ther are racist or they’re not, and as Palin ob­served, “All de­cent Amer­i­cans ab­hor racism.” That does not leave much room, then, for talk­ing about pos­si­ble roles for race that might not man­i­fest in stark ab­so­lutes. The prob­lem is ev­i­dent even in the NAACP’s res­o­lu­tion, which it has not for­mally re­leased yet, pend­ing pas­sage by its na­tional board of di­rec­tors in Oc­to­ber. Fix­at­ing on an in­ci­dent in March when mem­bers of the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus were ac­costed with racial ep­i­thets by demon­stra­tors at a tea party demon­stra­tion, the res­o­lu­tion asks these peo­ple “to re­pu­di­ate the racist el­e­ments and ac­tiv­i­ties of the Tea Party.” But what do tea party mem­bers hear when con­fronted by such charges?

The St. Louis Tea Party Coali­tion re­sponded to the NAACP’s res­o­lu­tion by con­stru­ing it as “con­demn[ing] 20 mil­lion tea party ac­tivists as racists.” That is not what the NAACP charged, but it does il­lus­trate the crux of the prob­lem. Whites mo­bi­liz­ing un­der the aus­pices of the tea party need to rec­og­nize what is so glar­ingly ob­vi­ous to peo­ple out­side the move­ment: that their white­ness mat­ters to their po­lit­i­cal stance. Not just their color, but their gen­eral age (the ma­jor­ity are over 45 and al­most 30 per­cent are 64 or older) link them to a time in this coun­try when pub­lic and po­lit­i­cal life was much less di­verse. Their po­si­tions and per­spec­tives re­flect a sense of loss of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and anx­i­ety about the fu­ture. Is that racist? Not nec­es­sar­ily, but race cer­tainly does shape their sen­ti­ments. The chal­lenge is to find a way to talk about the ways race mat­ter here with­out as­sum­ing that it can only come down to racism.

One of the best ways to pro­ceed is to start talk­ing about white­ness more fre­quently. Ar­guably, the great­est priv­i­lege that whites re­tain in this coun­try is the abil­ity to as­sume that race is not some­thing that mat­ters to them per­son­ally. That is why it can be so shock­ing for whites to en­counter charges of racism. And that is where a dis­cus­sion of the tea party could take a dif­fer­ent turn. In­stead of tak­ing of­fense and launch­ing counter charges of big­otry, par­tic­i­pants in the tea party need to take stock of how and why race may shape their per­spec­tives, anx­i­eties and deeply emo­tional op­po­si­tional stances. Whether they are racist or not, race is part of how they see and ex­pe­ri­ence the world. Be­ing cog­nizant of that is a key step for all whites who find them­selves an­gry about where this coun­try seems to be go­ing.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.