The Problem with the Discussion of Race and the Tea Party Movement

In 2009, Eric Holder commented that Americans are “cowards” when it comes to discussing race. Though this infuriated many, it was true then and is still true a year and a half later: Americans talk a lot about race; they just rarely discuss it.

We do have political leaders (on both the left and the right) inflaming the public discourse by throwing around the epithet “racist” to serve their own interests. But even those of us who want to be constructive are stymied because our language fails us.

In today’s Washington Post, E.J. Dionne has a helpful piece on the current controversy between the Tea Party and the NAACP over “whether the Tea Party is racist.” The short of it is that Dionne grants that the Tea Partiers oppose the Obama administration’s policies on ideological grounds but that there are also some racist elements within the Tea Party. Whether or not you think the Tea Party is “racist,” depends in part on where you are looking (much like whether the Tea Party is “religious”). What Dionne doesn’t do, and what we need to do, is to sort out the variety of ways racism impacts us and develop language that differentiates among them.

Right now, the ambiguity in the meaning of the term results in factions shouting past each other. One side understands racism in personal, individual terms: discriminating against a person on the basis of skin color. I am a racist if I do that and I am not a racist if I do not. The other side sees racism as systemic: our society is divided by race. I, as a white person, have benefited from that my whole life. Failing to recognize “white privilege” is racist.

Then there are layers of gradation making it virtually impossible to distinguish, in language, between advocating lynching and being welcomed into the best country clubs. The only label we have is “racist.”

So it sounds preposterous to some of us (with systemic views of racism) when someone says that the NAACP raising the issue of racism in the Tea Party “is racist.” It sounds ridiculous to them (with individual views of racism) when we say that current social problems in the United States are rooted in slavery, abolished nearly 150 years ago.

But we’ve all seen the ugly, explicitly racist signs at Tea Party events; there’s not much argument to be made there.

And many blog comments on the controversy between the Tea Party and the NAACP had, what seemed to me, to be racially based, angry undertones. A representative composite: “We (tea partiers) aren’t racist, we welcome African Americans. It’s those black groups that are racist” or worse: “Obama should just go back to Africa.”

But even more than that, I’m troubled by the Tea Party Movement’s invocation of the intentions of the founders as the “be all and end all” of Constitutional interpretation and their nostalgia for “states’ rights.” Even if you buy revisionist Christian American history which argues that the founders detested slavery and sought to facilitate the end of the institution, there can be no argument over the fact that they did not “intend” African Americans (or women) to have the right to vote.

George Lakoff has done some great work on this linguistic divide, especially as it relates to “family metaphors” and America’s culture wars. He has done so, though, with the goal of helping progressives better use the language “to win.” I’d like to, first, see us better use language to talk to each other.