Racial politics shouldn’t color tea party message
Ihave never participated in a tea party demonstration or rally. Nor do I think I ever will. The reason is simple: I am black and I am proud and no self-respecting black American would ever openly join that conservative movement or support its goals. Right?
I’m exaggerating, but really I’m just channeling a debate that erupted recently. At its annual convention in Kansas City, the NAACP passed a resolution denouncing the “racist element” within the tea party movement. “We don’t have a problem with the tea party’s existence,” President Benjamin Jealous said. “We have an issue with their acceptance and welcoming of white supremacists into their organizations.”
Sarah Palin, the highest-profile tea party supporter, wrote on her Facebook page that “the charge that tea party Americans judge people by the color of their skin is false, appalling and is a regressive and diversionary tactic to change the subject at hand.”
The discussion is an example of how we have, once again, become a polarized nation, both politically and racially.
I’m supposed to be on the NAACP’s side. I am a member of the nation’s oldest black sorority and founder of a national organization that focuses on professional black women. My book focuses on the unique challenges facing the nation’s college-educated black women. I have a lot to lose by lining up with the wrong crowd: I could be pegged an Uncle Tom or a sellout. And so I have been silent. But I am increasingly uncomfortable staying quiet.
The fact is that I support many of the core goals of the tea party movement — not as a black American, but as an American. Let me be clear about what I agree with and what I find intolerable: I do not support those who hate my president because he is black — that kind of hatred is often displayed on signs at tea party rallies. I do not support those who spew racial venom, especially when incendiary words come from leaders within the movement, as they did last week from Mark Williams, national spokesman for the Tea Party Express. And I reject anyone who would spit upon or yell racial epithets at an esteemed public servant such as Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and other black members of Congress, as tea party supporters reportedly have done.
But that visceral hatred is not the entirety of the movement. I admire the principle of protesting peaceably against your government. I, too, am fed up by vast unemployment, underemployment, and making do with smaller paychecks and increasingly burdensome taxes. Like many protesters, I agree that the government has gotten too large and has a say over too much of our lives. I think our nation’s immigration laws should be enforced most vigorously. And I agree that capitalism and a strong national defense are the best ways for this great country to continue to thrive, defeat terrorism and lead as the world’s sole superpower.
Many of my black friends, neighbors and relatives share these sentiments. I may be alone among my black peers in saying this publicly, I’m not the only one who feels this way. In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, only 77 percent of people who identified as members of the tea party described themselves as white. And talking to my friends, I hear the same kinds of things: Our taxes are too high; I had to tap into my retirement account; I could lose my home if my husband loses his job; I worry about what kind of future we are leaving our kids with this national debt.
Even people who disagree with me don’t think a public war of words over race is the best way forward. “How is condemning the actions of a few white fools in the tea party going to help put food on the table of unemployed black folks?” a black lawyer friend in his late 30s — a staunch Democrat — asked. He didn’t see how an NAACP resolution was going to create jobs in cities where black men are experiencing unemployment at Great Depression levels. “The NAACP needs to come up with something better than that move,” he said.
Another friend, a black woman who works for a member of Congress, agreed. “We need to wake up. Black folks are hurting bad in this current economy, as are many whites and Hispanics. We better start finding a way to work together and stop all of this racial name-calling,” she said. “We need a Rainbow Coalition tea party to set this thing off before we all end up getting dumped in the Boston Harbor.”
I agree. I got lambasted after I wrote a commentary for The Washington Post’s online magazine Root suggesting that blacks may want to give the tea party movement a second look on substance. We should, I argued, start our own tea party to protest the historic loss of black wealth since 2007. How could I take those racist people seriously, some asked.
I don’t take racists seriously. I am alarmed by the racial animus and incivility that continues to build among our citizenry — on all sides. But such voices do not represent the entire tea party movement. And it’s the movement’s ideas I take seriously.
To really move forward, we don’t need provocative proclamations and condemnations. We need the NAACP and the tea party leadership alike to come up with tangible solutions, ideas that lessen some of the economic and social pain we are all experiencing.
So why can’t black Americans have a tea party movement? Why can’t we get energized by politicians and proposals that would put people back to work and reduce the burden of taxes? I am all for social programs that feed and help people in rough times, but we need to do more than keep heads above water.
It’s too bad that the bigots in the tea party movement have drowned out the substance of a message we all should hear.