Despite the fact that I have opinions on these things, I haven't been particularly inspired to comment on the
NAACP's resolution denouncing "racist" rhetoric from the Tea Party and asking Tea Party leaders to repudiate the
movement's "racist elements."
For starters, others have done the good work of corroborating the substance of accusation, as well as noting how strange it is to criticize an organization devoted to calling out racism in the public square for calling out racism in the public square. To borrow
Ta-Nehisi Coates' comparison, it's as if someone criticized the Anti-Defamation League for denouncing anti-Semitism. For my part, I don't think that Tea Partiers are particularly full of animus toward black people, but given what we know about the relationship between ethnocentrism and opposition to redistributive
policies, I think it's safe to say that there's plenty of racial grievance within the movement.
That said, of the reactions thus far, I'm most interested in what RNC chairman
Michael Steele, had to say:
"Recent statements claiming the Tea Party movement is racist are not only destructive, they are not
true," Steele began in his statement.
"Tea Party activists are your mom or dad, your local grocer, banker, hairdresser or doctor. They are a diverse group
of passionate Americans who want to ensure that our nation returns to founding principles that honor the
Constitution, limit government's role in our lives, and support policies that empower free markets and free
enterprise," he said. [Emphasis mine]
This gets to one of the most frustrating things about American racial discourse; too many people understand
racism as something "bad people" do. "My mom is a great person! There's no way she can be racist!"
Racism is the sole province of Klansman or skinheads, and to say otherwise is to insult "good people."
Others have made this point, but this tendency to associate racism with "bad people" is one particularly galling irony of the civil-rights movement. By making men like Bull Connor the face of civil-rights opposition, civil-rights leaders scored a tremendous public-relations win but moved the country further away from a real examination of the deep and lasting prejudices that remain part of the nation's
identity. Only certain kinds of people were racists, and the rest of us were fine. Indeed, now that outright racism
is a rarity in the public square, it's really easy for many Americans to say that "real racism" is a relic of the past.
By responding to accusations of racism by citing the decency of Tea Partiers, Steele is simply playing on the common belief that racism is "over" -- thus, attempts to expose it are
by definition self-serving and insincere.
-- Jamelle Bouie
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