Saturday, October 2, 2010

Tea Party Racism

Whenever the Tea Party is accused of being motivated by racism, its conservative defenders tend to trot out some variation of this argument:

"Why is that you liberals always play the race card whenever conservatives disagree with you? Can't you accept the fact that people may have differences of opinion with a black politician for reasons other than his race?"

There is some truth to the first statement and absolute truth in the second. Yes, liberals are sometimes prone to "playing the race card" when it isn't warranted, although we do not do so nearly as often as the right-wing likes to claim. Yes, one can absolutely have differences of opinion with President Barack Obama without being a racist, and I would never accuse conservatives like David Frum, George Will, Peggy Noonan, or Charles Krauthammer of being racially motivated. Indeed, even those conservatives who I sometimes suspect are secretly driven by racial animus deserve the benefit of the doubt; considering the extent to which our society has (rightfully) stigmatized bigotry, that charge shouldn't be leveled if there isn't a solid foundation of evidence with which to support it. Unless an individual or group consistently engages in racist behavior or employs racist language, to accuse them of prejudice is not only irresponsible, it is morally wrong.

If you agree with that statement, however, it is only reasonable to assume that you will agree with its natural corollary:

Given our nation's long history of racial discrimination, and in particular its oppression of African Americans, to not identify and condemn individuals or groups who consistently engage in racist behavior and employ racist language is also irresponsible and morally wrong.

The question, then, when it comes to the Tea Party movement is very simple:

Is there compelling objective evidence indicating that it is motivated by racism?

Let us look at the facts:

1) Anecdotal evidence regarding racism in the Tea Party movement abounds.

A few examples are cited below, although there are many, many others:

- There was the angry use of racial epithets against black congressmen by a Tea Party mob during the walk to the Capitol for the health care reform vote.

- There was the satirical letter written by popular Tea Party leader Mark Williams on his website, one in which he pretended to speak on behalf of all black people to President Lincoln: "We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don’t cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!" The good news is that Williams was fired from his Tea Party group; the bad news is that this didn't occur until people outside of the organization noticed what he wrote and raised a fuss.

- There was the article by radical right-winger Dinesh D'Souza that claimed Barack Obama's political agenda is motivated by the Marxist anti-colonialism of his father, a "Luo tribesman"... an assertion that is based not on research, not on scholarly analysis of Obama's life or how he thinks, but on the simple fact that this man - whom Obama only met once in his life - happens to (a) be Obama's father and (b) be a Kenyan. As D'Souza put it, "... our President is trapped in his father's time machine. Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation's agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son. The son makes it happen, but he candidly admits he is only living out his father's dream. The invisible father provides the inspiration, and the son dutifully gets the job done. America today is governed by a ghost."

When this article was written, Forbes Magazine posted it as their cover feature while ex-Speaker of the House and Tea Party darling Newt Gingrich's referred to it as "brilliant" and claimed:

"What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate predictive model for his behavior."

For more on that, see:

- Glenn Beck, one of the unofficial leaders of the Tea Party movement, has accused Obama of "hating white people", said that "everything that is getting pushed through Congress, including this health care bill... are all driven by President Obama's thinking on one idea: reparations", and compared Obama's America to "Planet of the Apes."

- Signs that have appeared at Tea Party rallies include messages such as:

"Housebreak and Neuter Obama in November"

"Healthcare, Obamacare = Slavery",

"Govt. don't know nothing about birthing no babies"

"Obama is a destructive unpatriotic Black Muslim"

"ObamaCare" (this one contained Obama dressed up as an African witchdoctor, complete with a bone through his nose)

"WAP! Homey don't play dat!"

"Obama's Plan: White Slavery"

"Obamanomics: Monkey See, Monkey Spend"

"Stimulus Slave" (this one had an arrow pointing up to its holder's face)

"Gimme Yo Change" (this one had Obama dressed up as Mr. T)

"The Zoo Has An African and the White House Has A Lyin' African"

"Congress = Slaveowner Taxpayer = Niggar" (misspelling not mine)

"Obama! What you talkin' about Willis! Spend my money?"

"Cap Congress and Trade Obama Back to Kenya"

For more on that, see:

Defenders of the Tea Party like to claim that these anecdotes (a) are merely a reflection of anger about other issues that just so happens to make itself manifest in bigotry, (b) that they only reflect the views of a minority within the movement and thus can not be attributed to the whole, and (c) that anecdotes alone do not serve as proof of a given assertion.

The first two claims are easy to rebut. Claiming that racist comments are merely a reflection of anger about other issues is patently absurd; after all, there are plenty of ways to express rage that do not involve the utilization of racial epithets, a fact proven by the scores of conservative pundits who criticize Obama from a right-wing vantage point without resorting to racism on a daily basis. The idea that racists only reflect a minority within the Tea Party movement is not only factually without basis (since, after all, people who claim this don't often have evidence to support their assertion) but also ignores a more salient point: what does it say about the Tea Party movement that its message attracts such a vocal minority of racists in the first place? While that issue does not inherently prove racism on their part, it is still problematic enough that it should give them pause.

On the argument that anecdotes alone do not constitute proof, however, defenders of the Tea Party do have a legitimate point. That leads me to my next point:

2) Non-partisan surveys and statistical analyses have displayed racism within the Tea Party movement.

- A poll taken by "The New York Times" in April found that Tea Partiers are more than twice as likely as non-Tea Partiers to think that the Obama administration favors blacks over whites. It also found that they are more likely than the general public to believe that too much has been made of the problems facing black people.
For more on that, see:

- Despite the Tea Party's claim that they resent Obama's so-called favoritism toward blacks because it's socialistic, a Bloomberg Poll found that 70% of them want the government to help them find jobs... which begs the question of why they don't like the idea of Obama's administration helping black people but aren't as upset at the concept of it helping white people (which, by their admittedly inaccurate definition of socialism, would be just as socialistic).
For more on that, see:

- A scientific study by the University of Washington found that, within the Tea Party, "only 35% believe Blacks to be hardworking, only 45 % believe Blacks are intelligent, and only 41% think that Blacks are trustworthy." It also found that, when it came to the admission of racially intolerant views on nine separate points, "there were only two instances in which the distance separating true believers [Tea Partiers] from middle-of-the-roaders [moderates] fell below 10 percentage points." The survey revealed that "support for the Tea Party increases the probability that individuals agree that it's okay to 'racially profile someone on account of their race or religion' by approximately 27 percent." Perhaps most tellingly, when the statisticians applied retrogression to their figures so as to determine whether Tea Partiers were more likely to be racist than conservatives who didn't associate with that movement, it found that "even as we account for conservatism and partisanship, support for the Tea Party remains a valid predictor of racial resentment." In short, the survey found that "support for the Tea Party makes one 25 percent more likely to be racially resentful than those who don't support the Tea Party."

Of course, it is important to bear in mind the impact of the so-called Bradley Effect on the reliability of polls when it comes to racial matters - i.e., that the taboo on racial bigotry in America makes people more likely to lie in surveys so as to avoid coming off as racist. Since this trend almost always has the effect of downplaying racial influences, it suggests that the real racism underlying the Tea Party movement is even greater than that currently being displayed. That said, even if the Bradley Effect isn't applied here (for example, although it effected polling in the 2002 New York gubernatorial election and the 2008 New Hampshire Democratic primary, it didn't seem to impact the 2008 general presidential election), the results are still statistically significant enough to be considered solid indicators of a larger attitudinal problem within that movement.

For more on that, see:

3) Common sense suggests that racism is playing a major role in the Tea Party movement.

According to the aforementioned "New York Times" poll:

"Asked what they are angry about, Tea Party supporters offered three main concerns: the recent health care overhaul, government spending and a feeling that their opinions are not represented in Washington."

The third assertion is so deliberately vague that it is hard to give it much credit. The closest it comes to having validity is when you consider, as both "The New York Times" and the University of Washington polls pointed out, that Tea Partiers tend to be overwhelmingly conservative ideologically. From there, one can deduce that they are simply angry that a liberal president is in the White House. But where from there does that lead to their organizing massive protests against that president before he has implemented any policies (a factor I delve into more below)? Certainly there was vicious grassroots partisanship targeted against Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton from the right (to say nothing of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush from the left), but none of it is comparable in scope to the sheer vitriol being lobbed against Obama. Ideological differences - particularly those expressed so ambiguously - simple don't cut muster.

The problem with the first two claims is that they don't match up with the timeline - the Tea Party movement was in full force against Barack Obama before he was inaugurated, and to a lesser extent before he had even been elected. As such, the notion that they were protesting specific policies of the president is flagrantly inconsistent with the fact that they were out there venting their rage in protests before Obama had actually proposed anything (indeed, one of the criticisms from liberals and conservatives was that Obama took a very long time without offering any specifics on important policy questions).

Chronology is not the only element which weakens those first two premises:

- The argument about increased budget spending ignores that Tea Partiers (a) did not emerge in protest to the $1.3 trillion tax cuts that were passed under George W. Bush or when he wasted untold trillions more on the war in Iraq, even though those two programs alone cost at least three times more than the spending from all of Obama's programs combined and (b) it ignores that, according again to "The New York Times, "Tea Party supporters said they did not want to cut Medicare or Social Security — the biggest domestic programs, suggesting instead a focus on 'waste.'"

- A great deal of what they argued about the health care reform overhaul was factually untrue. For example, even though they claimed it was socialistic, the reality is that the most radical version of Obama's plan (which would have included a public option) would not have met the most basic definitions of socialism. In addition, their assertion that the health care reform plan would increase spending was equally untrue, as the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office repeatedly issued reports demonstrating that it would actually reduce the budget deficit in the long term. This doesn't even take into account the more overtly outlandish assertions, such as that the health care reform bill included death panels against the elderly and disabled. While some Tea Party apologists have tried to argue that they weren't responsible for these factual errors and were simply misinformed, that position ignores that the Tea Partiers first had to make the choice to believe certain sources of information (Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, the rest of FoxNews, Sarah Palin) over others (virtually everyone else). Considering that intellectual and logical strength were clearly not the compelling variables drawing them to Beck, Limbaugh, and Company, it stands to reason that they embraced those ideologues because the gospel they preached was that which the Tea Party possessed a disposition to want to hear. In short, the Tea Party gave Beck, Limbaugh, etc. their influence; Beck, Limbaugh, etc. did not make the Tea Party.

Other explanations for the Tea Party's actions - that they are angry about the ongoing recession or that they were frustrated about Obama's initial inaction during the BP oil spill - also don't make a great deal of sense, considering that the former began under President George W. Bush (who was not targeted by the Tea Party at the time) and the latter was never brought up by their own speakers.

In fact, one of the most noteworthy features of the Tea Party movement is its complete lack of a coherent message. Even though "The New York Times" poll was able to distill something resembling a gist regarding the whole movement, the very fact that the poll had to try - to say nothing of the fact that the answers it yielded don't make sense on a very fundamental level - is quite revealing. While the vicious partisanship against previous presidents has often been astonishing, the movements at least had very clear-cut resents underlying their existence. Mass movements against Bill Clinton in the 1990s were in opposition to his pro-choice policies, his efforts to help gays serve in the military, or his free trade policies; those against George W. Bush in the 2000s were just as clearly rooted in his anti-abortion policies, his support for the Iraq War or the Patriot Act.

Yet the Tea Party is a potpourri of right-wing groups that seems united by nothing but the fact that they have an extremely profound hatred of this particular president, one that transcends anything seen in the annals of recent partisan viciousness and is unexplained by anything in Obama himself.

Except, of course, that he is black.

It is from there that the prevalence of so-many racially tinged myths among Tea Partiers - that Obama is a Muslim, that he wasn't born in the United States - suddenly make a great deal of sense. As shown by the reaction to the Mark Williams letter, Tea Partiers may not mind overt racism when it's articulated (hence why there was initially no protest to his letter), but they are aware that the rest of the country seems to make an issue out of it (hence why he was fired as soon as it became controversial). That is why ideas which have no foundation but which have undeniable undertones of prejudice can suddenly become so popular among the Tea Party (and for those who feel that Obama is a Muslim see; for those who claim he wasn't born in this country, here is a copy of his birth certificate:

This idea was given its best explanation, ironically, from a Republican. In the words of John Avlon, former speechwriter to presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani:

I think it is a mistake to characterise opposition to Barack Obama as racist. I do think however it is naïve to analyse American politics without taking race into account. Slavery is the original sin in American politics. Race has always been a fault line in American politics but what I believe is at work here is something more subtle than simple racism and it is what I call in my book Wingnuts, the birth of white minority politics.

I think there is an anxiety underneath this that President Obama represents the rise of a multicultural elite and the rise of a non-white majority in America. If you talk to many of these protesters in the field, one of the dates that keeps coming up is 2050 which is the date the US census estimates that there will be a non-white majority in the United States.

So I don't believe it is simple racism and I think many folks on the left are very quick to play the race card inaccurately and to their own ultimate detriment but I think race is a factor and I think in part what we are seeing is the birth of white-minority politics.

For the most part, Avlon is correct. The only area of disagreement between his position and mine is in the characterization of "white-minority politics" as not being "simply racist."

Because, you see, whites aren't being oppressed. Barack Obama isn't persecuting them because he's black and they're white. The threat that they perceive against Obama and the black community isn't a real one; it is the product of their own ideological imagination, one cultivated by fears and hatreds rather than reason and logic.

In short, when they hate Obama because of "white-minority politics," they really do so because he's black.

And that's racist.

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