Why Won't Tea Party Leaders Condemn the Racists in Their Movement?

Last week, the NAACP passed a resolution at its annual convention asking Tea Party leaders to condemn the racists in their ranks. The NAACP was right on the money. Regardless of whether you think the average Tea Party supporter is racist, overt racists regularly show up and make headlines at their events. Tea Party leaders would have you believe that they're a fringe element that is absolutely not representative of the core values of the Tea Party. So, the leaders should be only too eager to publicly distance themselves from the ugly fringe, right? 

Wrong. Instead, one major Tea Party group doubled down, accusing the NAACP of racism.

The large and influential Tea Party Express withdrew from the National Tea Party Federation rather than rebuke TPE executive director Mark Williams for a satirical blog post in the voice of "Precious Benjamin Jealous", "Tom’s Nephew National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Head Colored Person"[sic]. (The current president of the NAACP is named Benjamin Todd Jealous.)

The post purports to be a letter from the president of the NAACP to President Abraham Lincoln accusing Lincoln of being "a racist" for freeing the slaves because the slaves "never had it so good." The narrator denounces the Tea Party for being the "old time abolitionist movement." 

Let's parse the "logic" of Williams' "satire": The NAACP accuses the Tea Party of having some racist supporters, therefore the NAACP loves slavery and hates Lincoln for emancipating the slaves. You see, taxes are slavery that redistribute the wealth of white workers to black layabouts--just like under actual slavery where white slave owners paid for "three squares a day" for slaves out of their own pockets. Today, according to the fictional Jealous, taxpayers somehow fund "wide-screen TVs" for "coloreds" who long for the good old days of slavery when "massa" made all their decisions for them. (Read the whole thing at Ta-Nehesi's place.)

Williams later tried to defend himself by saying that the piece was satirical, that he was using the absurd to illustrate the absurd. Satire to underscore an offensive point is still offensive. The point Williams was trying to drive home with all the juicy stereotypes about "coloreds" and their "wide screen TVs" is that anyone who thinks the Tea Party is racist is the real racist for wanting to perpetuate slavery.

This is the kind of bizarro hall-of-mirrors logic that typifies the Tea Party rhetoric around race. Their favorite language game is "Who's the Real Racist"? Whenever anyone accuses the Tea Party of racism, they accuse the accuser of racism.

The simple move is to cite the charge as proof of the accuser's implacable hatred of white men. A more sophisticated strategy is to allude to racist stereotypes in your rhetoric, confident that everyone who lives in this culture will get the reference, and then accuse anyone who complains of being racist for picking up on the reference.

A classic example of this strategy was a sign at the 9/12 DC Tea Party protest that showed Obama as Robin Hood with the headline "Robbin' for the Hood." If that seems like race-baiting to you, as opposed to a clever allusion to a beloved children's fable about the redistribution of wealth, that's because you know about that stereotype of black men as criminals. You might also be aware of long-running right wing paranoia that social programs are a plot to siphon the money of white taxpayers to indolent black people. So, if you think the choice of iconography has anything to do with the president being black, then you're the real racist.

Birtherism is fertile ground for "Who's the Real Racist?" The birthers claim that they have proof that our president isn't really the president because he's a from Africa. That sounds kind of racist doesn't it? Well, officially, Barack Obama isn't really the president because the Constitution says that no foreign-born person can hold the office, it's nothing personal. If you detect any ulterior motives for a conspiracy theory that paints Barack Obama as an African Muslim, then you've obviously got a problem with Africans and Muslims. So, if the NAACP takes issue with a Tea Party sign bearing the slogan "There's an African lion in the zoo and a lyin' African in the White House", they're the real racists.

The graphic accompanying today's post came from the newsletter of TeaParty.org, one of the many groups claiming the mantle of the Tea Party movement. Somehow I got on their spam list. It shows President Obama busking for change on the sidewalk with an accordion flanked by bottles of liquor and a campaign sign bearing the slogan "Change We Can Believe In." The headline reads "President Obama Goes Fundraising." It's a pun on the change slogan. But you can tell the creator of this image got a thrill from depicting the black president as a derelict minstrel swilling liquor on a sidewalk. (If you suspect the artist might be milking some widely-held negative stereotypes about African Americans, you'd better wash your cranium out with soap, racist!) Earlier this year TeaParty.org spammed me with an image of Obama in a sombrero to communicate their distaste for his immigration policies.

Self-proclaimed Tea Party groups vary in size and influence. The Tea Party Express is one of the largest and best-funded and one of the most closely connected to the Republican Party. Sarah Palin has spoken at TPE events, which puts them squarely in the stratosphere of the Tea Party movement.

Mark Williams precipitated a major schism within the Tea Party and national leaders like Sarah Palin are going to have to take sides. Will they denounce the racists in their midst or will they continue to coddle them? The longer they wait and the more they equivocate the more credence they give to the suspicion that racism in the Tea Party extends well beyond the radical fringe.

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