Race Talk

keeping up with the "national conversation on race"

NAACP and the Tea Party: Diagnosing the Relevance of Race

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In the past year, a somewhat clearer image of the Tea Party movement has come into focus. After waves of vivid yet anecdotal glimpses in the news of these angry conservative, we gained a more quantified picture via a survey by the New York Times that revealed them to be almost 90% white, predominantly male, and generally better off economically than the nation at large. The significance of their whiteness has been a fluctuating topic of discussion, now drawn sharply into view by the NAACP’s resolution, passed on Tuesday at their 101st annual convention, condemning “bigoted elements within the Tea Party.” Not surprisingly, whites associated with the movement have responded animatedly to the resolution. Most prominently, Sarah Palin decried it as a “spurious charge of racism,” construing it as “false, appalling, and is a regressive and diversionary tactic to change the subject at hand.”

But what is “the subject at hand” when it comes to the Tea Party? Overwhelmingly, its supporters maintain their concerns are economic and linked to the liberal orientation of the Obama administration. Yet it is hard not to recognize a racial texture to these concerns, given that they are so keenly tied to the nation’s first African-American president. Many commentators have parsed their public statements looking for evidence of racial animus, yet, as whites so often do, members have steadfastly insisted that this is not about race. So how do we talk about the potential racial dimensions of this movement, and is “racism” the best way to characterize them? These questions concern more than the Tea Party; they relate, as well, to our public culture broadly as try to make sense of how race matter—now, in the past, and in the future.

This question is challenging because we still tend to think of race and racism as a clear cut, black and white matter. People either are racist or they’re not, and as Palin observed, “All decent Americans abhor racism.” That does not leave much room, then, for talking about possible roles for race that might not manifest in stark absolutes. The problem is evident even in the NAACP’s resolution, which they have not formally released yet, pending its passage by their National Board of Directors in a meeting scheduled for October in Baltimore, MD. Fixating on an incident in March when members of the Congressional Black Caucus were accosted with racial epithets by demonstrators at a Tea Party demonstration, the resolution asks these people “to repudiate the racist elements and activities of the Tea Party.” But what do Tea Party members here when confronted by such charges?

The St. Louis Tea Party Coalition responded to the NAACP’s resolution by construing it as “condemn[ing] 20 million tea party activists as racists.” This is absolutely not what the NAACP charged, but it does illustrate the crux of the problem. Whites who are mobilizing under the auspices of the Tea Party need to recognize what is so glaringly obvious to people outside the movement: that their whiteness matters to their political stance. Not just their color, but their general age (the majority are over 45 years old and almost thirty percent are 64 or older) link them to a time in this country when public and political life was much less diverse. Their positions and perspectives reflect a sense of loss of representation and a deep anxiety about the future. Is this racist? Not necessarily, but race certainly does shape their sentiments. The challenge—not just for the Tea Party, but for the NAACP and the rest of us as well—is to find a way to talk about the ways race matter here without assuming that it can only come down to racism.

One of the best ways to proceed is to start talking about whiteness more frequently. Arguably, the greatest privilege that whites retain in this country is the ability to assume that race is not something that matters to them personally. This is why it can be so shocking for whites to encounter charges of racism. And this is where discussion of the Tea Party could take a different turn. Instead of taking offense and launching counter charges of bigotry, participants in the Tea Party need to take stock of how and why race may shape their perspectives, anxieties, and deeply emotional oppositional stances. Whether they are racist or not, race is part of how they see and experience the world. Being cognizant of this is a key step for all whites who find themselves angry about where this country seems to be going.

Written by jhartiganj

July 14, 2010 at 8:13 pm

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Mel Gibson & Samir Shabazz

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Wow, it’s shaping up to be a busy summer with our “national conversation on race.” The stories just keep coming fast and furious, with the two most recent ones effectively bookending the range of comments currently being purveyed in public culture. Alongside Mel Gibson’s tirade imaging his ex-girlfriend being “raped by a pack of niggers” for dressing provocatively, we also have the heated debate over whether taunts of “cracker” and “white devil” allegedly hurled by members of the New Black Panthers outside of a Philadelphia polling place constitute voter intimidation.

This pair of stories somewhat contrarily suggest either that nothing has changed (e.g. Mel Gibson) or that, rather, everything has changed now that white “crackers” can “see what it is like to be ruled by a black man.” Either way, taken separately or in tandem, these incidents convey that the “post racial” future many imagined would arrive with the election of Barack Obama is a far stranger land than anticipated. But they also each reflect that Americans are still 1) raptly attuned to the relevance of race and 2) listen in a fairly informed manner, in the sense that new incidents are consistently referenced to our extensive, detailed public record on race.

Whatever “post racial” may come to mean—perhaps like “postmodernism,” it will signify a reconfiguration rather than a complete effacement of its core referent—race remains a central topic of conversation for Americans as we struggle to figure out how and why it continues to matter so much. With this blog, I’ll aim to update the basic perspective offered in my book, What Can You Say?, which provides a fundamental orientation to how this “national conversation on race” works. Despite a widespread belief that, suddenly, race would be “over” once Obama took office, we continue to be both intrigued and muddled by racial matters. But at least we’re still talking about it.

Written by jhartiganj

July 13, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized