Is the Tea Party Racist?
There is gross immaturity and aggression on both sides of the aisle, and "the other side does it too" is no excuse. To borrow from Michael Gerson's recent Washington Post column, there are parts of the "grown-up party" and the "ugly party" in every movement. The grown-ups should impose discipline, and movement leaders are already excluding those with racist messages. But the sheer animosity I have seen from the Tea Party so far does not hold a candle to the hatred for Bush that was evident throughout his presidency, and the "anger" presents no reason to conclude that it is irrational racism, rather than a rational and justified response to a government gone off the rails.
The Bush hatred is instructive. In the early years of the Bush administration, I lived among elite liberal academics in Princeton, New Jersey, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. I remember well how Bush was thoroughly loathed before the invasion of Iraq, before the terrorist attack in September 2001, even before the Florida election fiasco. Late night show host Craig Kilborn showed clips of a Bush speech over the words, "SNIPERS WANTED" -- at the nominating convention in 2000. Liberal elites hated Bush even when they knew very little about his character or record or governing philosophy. They knew he was a white conservative from Texas who wore cowboy boots and spoke with a muddled drawl, and who had found Jesus at the bottom of a beer glass. That was all they needed to know.
Likewise, liberals never needed to see the Tea Partiers carrying "witch doctor" signs. They saw a group of largely white conservatives who listened to country music and talk radio. The belief that the Tea Party is racist followed as a matter of course.
2) The largely white composition of the Tea Party rallies is also given as evidence of the movement's racism. The allegation of racism is explicit when progressive leader Jim Wallis writes, "There is something wrong with a political movement like the Tea Party which is almost all white."
Yet the Gallup poll shows that Tea Party supporters are only 4 percent more white (79 percent against 75 percent non-Hispanic white) than the general adult populace. Seventy-nine percent does not comprise "almost all" in my book, especially when it is not far removed from the average.
Other studies suggest a somewhat higher proportion of whites in the Tea Party movement, but the most compelling explanation for the whiteness of the movement is simply that African-Americans are strongly devoted to Barack Obama. In the same Gallup poll, non-black minorities participate in the Tea Party in the same proportion as they appear in the general populace. The different racial composition of Tea Party supporters and non-supporters is caused not by the predominance of whites -- because Hispanics and Asians are present in a proportional measure -- but by the absence of African-Americans.
Ninety-six percent of African-Americans voted for Barack Obama. African-Americans in general are stalwart Democrats, and are especially strongly inclined toward progressive positions on the economic issues at the heart of the Tea Party movement. In this political context, and the historical context of the first African-American Presidency, it is entirely understandable that few African-Americans would participate in a political movement that strongly condemns the policies of President Obama.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.