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Think Tank

Does the Tea Party Movement "Open Doors" to Discrimination?

Yesterday the N.A.A.C.P. approved a resolution censuring the Tea Party movement for racism within its ranks. Cited in the resolution were "signs and posters intended to degrade people of color generally and President Barack Obama specifically" as well as verbal and physical attacks on black congressmen.  Tea Party supporters were quick to deny the charge of racism, including Sarah Palin, the de facto leader of the movement.  "I am saddened by the NAACP's claim that patriotic Americans who stand up for the United States of America's Constitutional rights are somehow 'racists,'" she wrote in a Facebook note.

This question of racism has dogged the Tea Party movement since it emerged as a political force in early 2009.  Former president Jimmy Carter sparked an uproar last September when he said attacks against President Obama were motivated by racism—attacks which originated largely from Tea Party rallies.

Charles Postel, historian and author of "The Populist Vision," told Big Think that while racism may not be the driving force of the Tea Party movement, there is "no question that it opens its doors wide to those who do not like black people." He cited the "birther" movement, many of whose members are part of the Tea Party. Their challenge to Barack Obama's eligibility to be president is "clearly based on the color of his skin," Postel said. "No one asks for John McCain's birth certificate, and he was born in Panama."

The Tea Party movement is part of a tradition of conservative movements that, in order to increase its political power, have embraced fringe, and potentially racist, groups, said Postel. He rejected the term "populist" to describe the Tea Party, likening it instead the American Liberty League of the 1930s, which emerged as a conservative reaction against Roosevelt's New Deal. This group, he said, advocated the "same exact slogans as we see now": narratives about the "forgotten men and women who made America strong" and "ordinary folk" opposed to the corrupt elites.

The League disbanded in 1940, but the same sort of discourse reemerged shortly after World War II with the John Birch Society. "The John Birch Society wasn't interested in race," Postel insisted. "It was mainly concerned about corporate taxation and labor laws, but in order to build a political coalition they had to be very savvy about linking up with the segregationists." In the same way, the Tea Party movement is not a monolithic organization but rather a collection of disparate groups that share some common beliefs. The Tea Party supporters carrying signs equating President Obama to Hitler and denigrating minorities may not make up the bulk of the movement, but they certainly have gotten the most media attention.

And while there may be diversity in priorities amongst the Tea Party supporters, there seems to be little diversity when it comes to political affiliation and race. In a recent Big Think interview, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey characterized the Tea Party as an "extremely big tent of small government conservatism, which has Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians, Evangelicals, people of all stripes and color and religious orientation." But polls say quite the opposite: 8 out of 10 Tea Party supporters are Republican. And only 6% of them are black.

So is the Tea Party racist? Well, that may be too facile. Benjamin Jealous, the N.A.A.C.P. president and recent Big Think expert, acknowledged in his statement yesterday that they were not condemning the entire movement. But there are certainly those within the Tea Party who must be purged from the movement before it can be considered a legitimate organization interested in elevating political discourse in this country.
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