Tea Party’s Race Issues Surfacing

The NAACP’s unanimous resolution calling for the Tea Party to distance itself from its racist elements has set off the invective of the movement’s supporters. Comments have ranged from Sarah Palin’s Facebook page that the charges are “appalling” to Tea Party Express spokesperson Mark Williams’ insistence that the NAACP “make[s] more money off of race than any slave trader ever.”

Williams then penned his most telling salvo: a “Letter to Lincoln,” a supposed satire in which he portrayed a “Precious Ben Jealous” writing to Abraham Lincoln for flat-screen TVs and government bailouts. Since when did AIG and Lehman Brothers become brothers? Belatedly, on Sunday afternoon, the Tea Party Federation, an umbrella group, expelled Williams over the letter. But the damage is done, and it is deep.

Williams’ ouster means that the Tea Party did something the NAACP asked it to do—fascinating.

But beyond the din of the Tea Party repudiation of the NAACP resolution is the role of organized political action, religion, and race. The real issue for the Tea Party movement is whether it can step away from the revisionist, white supremacist histories into which it has invested emotional collateral to realize that it is the very “fringe elements,” as their leaders call it, that will torpedo their nascent organizations.

The Tea Party “big tent” has rotten tent poles, and the NAACP’s tent isn’t as strong as it could be. As any good summer evangelist can tell you, tent poles are important to holding up the tent. Let me explain.

The fundamental problem from the inception of the Tea Party movement is that its stated grievance was not the core problem for most of its constituency. The stated goal, rolling back “big government,” is not the glue that holds the movement together. Rather, the its roots were based in the 2008 election, when political rallies for McCain-Palin turned into “take back America rallies” replete with monkeys representing Obama, Palin firing up the shock troops, and John McCain dealing painfully with a constituency that desperately wanted a white man to win the presidency.

The core emotional issue from the start has been the shock of realizing that the majority of America voted in a black president, after having eight years of a white evangelical Christian president. The resulting Tea Party rallies and conventions, where racist signs, behavior, and the central incident of seeing African-American members of Congress being called “nigger,” are undeniable reactions to the election.

Williams’ throwback racist rant seems to date the Tea Party leadership’s racial ideology somewhere between 1840 and 1950. I’m not quite sure why Williams thinks that African Americans simply want flat screen TVs and government bailouts, but the last time I looked, most of the bailout money has helped rich white scions and Wall Street firms. Even with a black president, African Americans have the highest rate of unemployment in the nation. Williams’ letter, a pathetic attempt at satire, just shows his ignorance of history and worse: the life that many citizens—which the Tea Party claims to represent—lead in this nation. If Williams represents what “authentic” America is, not even Norman Rockwell would want to paint that place.

The Tea Party’s big tent does little to repudiate the nativists and “patriots” in its ranks, all while its leadership scoffs at charges of racism. But research proves the movement’s racial views.

That tent, ostensibly focused on individualism, coupled with the constant cries about Christian America and “small town America,” identifies “true” Christianity with whiteness. Insulting immigrants, ethnic organizations, and difference is de rigueur. The default position is white. Their foundational understanding of individual rights is founded on “states’ rights” and “libertarian” ideals, with white American Christianity as its base. I am sure most true libertarians would shrink from this assessment, but let’s just call these Tea Party folks “racial libertarians” or “racial patriots.”

The NAACP, founded at the Niagara Conference in 1909, has seen all manner of racism since its inception. The 101-year-old organization has fought lynchings, bombings, assassinations, and more in the quest for civil and equal rights. Rather than carrying around signs, the group used parliamentary procedures to pass a resolution condemning the racist elements of the Tea Party movement.

But it is with a religion historian’s interest that I look at the clash between the NAACP’s resolution and the Tea Party. In the past, black clergy and organizations like the AME or the Progressive Baptist Convention would have spearheaded these efforts. But now, the NAACP, rather than black clergy, took the lead, and African-American religious leaders, apart from Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, have been mostly silent on the Tea Party issue.

Perhaps, then, Eddie Glaude had a point about the black church being dead. Though it may not be dead as an entity, as a cohesive force of social change it’s clearly not the force it once was. Some of the same conservative black Christians who are also NAACP members, for instance, might be also followers of the abortion-as-“black-genocide” movement.

Like the Tea Party, the NAACP is forced to strengthen a tent with tent poles that aren’t always representative of the main group. This absence of strong churches and pastors from the community will make the NAACP’s work of condemning the Tea Party a lot harder. Perhaps an alliance with immigration reformers and others, rather than waiting on the traditional black church, might be helpful in combatting the racist elements.

It remains to be seen how this resolution and the resulting war of words and poor taste will “color” both the 9/12 Rally and the NAACP’s anti-Tea Party rally on the docket for Washington DC this fall. Their loud, condescending response to the NAACP’s resolution is telling. The hyperbole and the letter to Lincoln serve to highlight their core beliefs.

Yet the stories to watch are not those of the main players, but the religious convictions and actions surrounding both of these groups. Neither the Tea Party Christians nor the NAACP Christians are “progressive” by any stretch of the imagination. What is more interesting, though, is the ways in which they are reconfiguring the emphasis on individuality in their Christian beliefs. That is the story here, and there is more investigative work to be done.


See also: Julie Ingersoll’s blog post, Do Tea Partiers Use Religious Justification For Racial Rhetoric?