Graphic: Rightwing poster vs. Obama
The Tea Party
Is All About Race
By Bob Cesca
March 3, 2010 - I was going to open this piece with an analogy about the tea party groups and why they're treated seriously by the press and the Republicans. The analogy would go something like: "Imagine [insert left-wing activist group here] getting a serious profile in a mainstream newspaper, and imagine serious Democratic politicians appearing at their convention."
The problem is, when I really evaluated what the various far-left activist groups are all about and compared them with the tea party movement, there really wasn't any equivalency. At all.
Because when you strip away all of the rage, all of the nonsensical loud noises and all of the contradictions, all that's left is race. The tea party is almost entirely about race, and there's no comparative group on the left that's similarly motivated by bigotry, ignorance and racial hatred.
I hasten to note that I'm talking about real racism, insofar as it's impossible for the majority race -- the 70 percent white majority -- to be on the receiving end of racism. That is unless white males, for example, are suddenly an oppressed racial demographic. But judging by the racial composition of, say, the Senate or AM talk radio or the cast members playing the Obamas on SNL, I don't think white people have anything to worry about.
This isn't an epiphany by any stretch. From the beginning, with their witch doctor imagery, watermelon agitprop and Curious George effigies, the wingnut right has been dying to blurt out, as Lee Atwater famously said, "nigger, nigger, nigger!"
But they can't.
Strike that. Correction. TeaParty.org founder Dale Robertson brandished a sign with the (misspelled) word "niggar." So they're not even as restrained as the generally unstrung Atwater anymore.
Most of the time, they merely imply the use of the word. Rush Limbaugh referring to the president as a "black man-child," for example. Every week, a new example pops up on the radio and somehow the offenders are able to keep their job while Howard Stern is fined for saying the comparatively innocuous word "blumpkin." Limbaugh, on the other hand, can stoke racial animosity on his show by suggesting that health care reform is a civil rights bill -- reparations -- and no one seems to mind. And no, the impotence isn't an adequate Karmic punishment for Limbaugh's roster of trespasses.
The tea party is an extension of talk radio. It's an extension of Fox News Channel. It's an extension of the southern faction of the Republican Party -- the faction that gave us the Southern Strategy, the Willie Horton ad, the White Hands ad and the racially divisive politics of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. It's an extension of the race-baiting and, often, the outright racism evident in all of those conservative spheres.
But unlike the heavy-handedness of Dale Robertson and others, the tea party followers are generally more veiled about why they're so outraged by our current president.
In the New York Times this past weekend, David Barstow profiled a teabagger from Idaho:
SANDPOINT, Idaho -- Pam Stout has not always lived in fear of her government. She remembers her years working in federal housing programs, watching government lift struggling families with job training and education. She beams at the memory of helping a Vietnamese woman get into junior college.
But all that was before the Great Recession and the bank bailouts, before Barack Obama took the White House by promising sweeping change on multiple fronts, before her son lost his job and his house. Mrs. Stout said she awoke to see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated -- even manufactured -- by both parties to grab power.
Now you might be saying to yourself, I don't see the racism here. But if you eliminate all of the reasons for Stout's participation in the tea party movement as being contradictory or nonsensical, all that's left is race.
She claims to be against the bank bailouts, but the tea party is against the president's bank fee designed to recover the TARP money. They also appear to be against financial regulatory reform. None of this makes any sense. If tea partiers are against the bailouts, basic logic dictates that they ought to be in favor of getting the money back. Or do they prefer that the banks keep the money and orchestrate further meltdowns? Honestly, I'm not even entirely sure they realize that the bailouts and the recovery act (stimulus) are two different things. But they're also against the recovery act -- you know, whatever that is.
She also told the New York Times that she's tired of politicians "manufacturing crisis."
Right. Three things here.
First, where was she -- where were the teabaggers -- when the far-right endorsed and supported a massive increase in the size of government, unitary executive power grabs and unconstitutional measures fueled by fear-mongering over the very remote threat of terrorism? Crickets chirping. The odds of being killed in an airborne terrorist attack are literally 1 in 10 million. You're much more likely to kill yourself than to be killed by a terrorist.
Second, I refuse to believe that health care is a "manufactured crisis." People are going broke and dying every day. Even the most conservative estimates show that there are 9/11-level casualties each month due to a lack of adequate health insurance. The horror stories are readily available online. Just Google "health insurance horror story" and see how manufactured the crisis is.
Third, look at any bar graph of the economy as of one year ago or any basic jobs number and tell me if the crisis is manufactured. Hell, Pam Stout's son lost his house! How can she possibly suggest the economic crisis was manufactured?
I hate to single out one person, but Stout's incongruous anger is indicative of the entire movement.
From the outset, the tea party was based on a contradictory premise (the original tea party was a protest against a corporate tax cut). And when you throw out all of the nonsense and contradictions, there's nothing left except race. There's no other way to explain why these people were silent and compliant for so long, and only decided to collectively freak out when this "foreign" and "exotic" president came along and, right out of the chute, passed the largest middle class tax cut in American history -- something they would otherwise support, for goodness sake, it was $288 billion in tax cuts! -- we're left to deduce no other motive but the ugly one that lurks just beneath the pale flesh, the tri-corner hats and the dangly tea bag ornamentation.
Irrespective of whether the president passed a huge tax cut or went out of his way to bring Republicans into the health care process, the seeds of racial animosity from the far-right were sown during the campaign. In those lines waiting for then-vice presidential candidate and current tea party heroine Sarah Palin, their loud noises spread the pre-scripted lies, lies that entirely hinged on the president's African heritage. A white candidate would never be accused of being a secret Muslim. A white candidate would never be accused of being a foreign usurper. Only a black candidate with a foreign name would be accused of "palling around with domestic terrorists."
In the final analysis, when you boil away all of the weirdness, it becomes clear that the teabaggers are pissed because there isn't yet another doddering old white guy in the White House -- like they're used to. That's what this is all about.
By way of a postscript, one of the many faceless radio talk show wingnuts, Jim Quinn, this week called President Obama a "Kenyan wuss" who should be "slapped silly." The Kenyan lie and the "slap silly" insult aside, this president is no wuss. You know how I know? He's a black man who ran for president and won despite the growing mob of gun-toting militant white bigots like Jim Quinn who are sucking air in America. President Obama achieving this despite the hatred and threats against him takes serious guts. Guts that Jim Quinn and the tea party movement will never understand.
Last week, I wrote a piece about the tea party movement and the obvious through-line of race, race-baiting, racism and the use of the Southern Strategy within the movement. The responses were mostly positive and supportive, while the responses from the far-right and tea party people were predictably obnoxious, contradictory and fact-free.
The dominant theme throughout the most outraged responses was, essentially: We're not racists, but here's why we're pissed about blacks and immigrants. For example, here's a particularly illustrative e-mail, reprinted as it was received:
The Tea Party is NOT about race, it is about me paying taxes to support every non contributing individual that has the ability to pro create. It is not my/our fault that the majority of NON contributors are minority. It is not my/our fault some refuse to learn English, thereby limiting their employment opportunities. Hell, the whole race thing is nothing but bullshit for losers such as Garafolo and yourself to capitalize on. Rest assured Booby Boy we no longer give a damn about what you think do or say The main reason the Tea Party exists is Obama's Marxist/Socialistic COMMUNISTIC leanings that will ultimately cost me, part of the 50% that pays taxes, as opposed to the 50% that DON'T PAY!! An ideology that will transform this Country into a third world nation. Try having some honest debate Booby and you might gain cred. Until then you're shining Garafolo's shoes. Sounds to me like you may be an immigrant yourself with an axe to grind. Is that the case Booby? If so you can always go home! Careful moron that light you're looking at is a train not the end of the tunnel......
Smart. I have dozens more just like it. Several of them tell me I'm an idiot for suggesting there's a racial component, followed closely with a line about how I should "go back to Cuba or Africa." Nope. No racism there. Nevertheless, no matter how unhinged the above message might be, it proves an important point -- my point.
Each topic abstractly hinges on race.
The insistence that the tea party movement is more about taxes, big government and personal freedoms is partly true. And many tea party people honestly believe it. But if you dig below the surface into the details underlying these banner themes, it's not difficult to find that, yes, it's about taxes -- taxes on the rich to finance the extravagant lives of layabout welfare queens, or big government "ramming health care down our throats" as a means of slavery reparations to African Americans, and personal freedoms being stripped away by a liberal fascist Nazi who wants to give money and handouts to minorities in the form of health care subsidies and mortgage relief. You know, typical Nazi behavior. If I had a dollar for every Nazi who wanted to funnel government cash to immigrants and minorities...
It's the subtext that gurgles just below the surface of these three topics that composes the tea party version of the Southern Strategy.
Developed by Republican strategists like Harry Dent and Pat Buchanan during the rebuilding of the GOP in the post Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act era, the Southern Strategy's goal was to win over southern whites by demonizing blacks using subterfuge, dog whistles and coded language. As I mentioned last week, the late Republican mastermind Lee Atwater described the use of the Southern Strategy as being all about the use of "abstract" issues that imply race without explicitly using direct racial epithets or even the words "black" or "white."
Atwater described some of the abstract issues of his era as "forced bussing" or taxes, and framing these issues in a way that subconsciously fuels white resentment towards blacks, and serves to coalesce white votes around Republican candidates. After all, Republicans will readily admit that trying to win over black voters has been a lost cause since LBJ, so why not exploit that loss by playing to white racial bias and thus locking down larger chunks of the white vote?
When Atwater was discussing this issue with political science professor Alexander P. Lamis (reported by Bob Herbert in the New York Times), the topic was Reagan and his cuts in food stamps and legal services in urban communities. Even though the Republicans had already won over the South, Atwater explained, these Reagan-era moves tended to reinforce white turnout and Wallace types. Again, it's not about direct racism, but it's borne out of a racial component.
That's the Southern Strategy. It's as old as the Civil War and the Southern white "fire-breathers," but only in the last 40 years has it become a significant subheading in the fear chapter of the Republican Party playbook.
In other words, this isn't a figment of my imagination or a wacky far-left conspiracy theory. The Southern Strategy was and still is very real. Look no further than the Willie Horton ad. The White Hands ad. The 2006 "Harold! Call me!" ad which set off white dog whistles in Tennessee about a black candidate having sex with a clearly naked blond white woman. Not ancient history by any stretch, nor have been the various attempts to fuel racial animosity against President Obama during and following the campaign.
Likewise, no one in charge of the tea party movement, save for obvious racist Dale Robertson (he of the pirate form of "niggaaarrrr"), is out there gathering members while sporting white headgear and spouting off obvious white supremacy slogans. This would backfire, as Atwater said during his Southern Strategy remarks. The subconscious racial element would suddenly become obvious and scare away supporters who aren't necessarily racist, or who are in denial about their racism. Instead, they rally supporters around issues like taxes, big government and personal freedoms. But with a not-so-hidden Southern Strategy wink.
The flimsy and contradictory policy arguments only make the winking racial subtext more obvious.
For instance, the president cut taxes for the middle class. According to the CBO, a full third of the projected national debt -- $3 trillion over the next 10 years -- is due to the president retaining middle class tax cuts and rolling back the alternative minimum tax so it doesn't absorb middle class earners. Tax cuts. So how, then, can the tea party reasonably claim that President Obama is all about taxing the middle class "to death," as some e-mailers argued?
For the tea party leadership, it's all politics, and politics is power. It's about saying "join us" so we can oppose "them" and their taxes to pay for the poor (wink, we mean blacks) and their health care handouts (for reparations to blacks, wink). Consequently, tea party organizers and their PR wing at Fox News and on talk radio are able to consolidate political and financial power.
Glenn Beck, this week, was at it again, suggesting that the U.S. Census was scheming to give lopsided representation to minorities. This on top of his ongoing line that President Obama hates white people and that health care reform is all about reimbursing black people because of slavery. Yeah. He's not so "abstract," as Lee Atwater once said.
In Beck's case, sure, he spends a considerable amount of time talking about freedom and something about red phones and assembling acronyms that spell out non-words like "OLGIARHY." But the race argument is ever present. As obvious as it is, he doesn't say outright that his viewers should hate black people or immigrants. But he's clearly stoking white resentment for ratings and financial gain. Beck, like it or not, is a major player in the tea party movement, as is Fox News Channel. Together, they've spent countless sums of cash promoting tea party rallies and endorsing tea party causes. They are inextricably linked. And the Southern Strategy is right out there in plain view.
To date, for all of their protests and e-mails, I have yet to hear or read about any tea party participant who has denounced Beck. Or denounced Limbaugh for his daily race-based grabassery (yesterday is was a pun about Eric Massa, Governor Patterson and the racial epithet "massa"). Or denounced the scores of people who turn up with witch doctor signs and other racially-insensitive agitprop.
And finally, no. I'm not implying that everyone who disagrees with President Obama is a racist. Hell, I disagree with him on a number of issues. And no, not every member of the tea party movement is an outright racist. There are surely some earnest, decent (though politically misguided) people who are unaware of the race-baiting that's happening around them, and it's reasonable to suggest that there are more than a few people who simply don't recognize racism when they see it. But it's clear that a major component of the tea party movement -- the movement -- is the use of race, anti-immigrant sentiment and abstract racism as a strategy. Naturally, it wouldn't be used if there wasn't anything to gain. Sadly, however, the target demographic for the tea party movement is low-information white middle class voters who have a tendency, no matter how subconscious, to respond to political dog whistles.
No matter how loud and obnoxious they might become, the urgency is to make sure the tea party isn't taken any more seriously than its backwards and contradictory positions on the issues, its phony Astroturfing, and its Southern Strategy politics. This is essentially a corporate-driven assembly of angry white people gathered around abstractly racial issues for the purposes of venting rage while financially benefiting the far-right power elites who are pulling the strings. The broader conservative movement, say nothing of anyone who takes seriously the issues confronting the nation, would do well to stay away from the tea party, leaving it to flail in the margins where it belongs.
Correction: Atwater's discussion took place with Alexander P. Lamis, and was first reported by Bob Herbert.