When Tea Partiers Try to Show Their "Diversity"


Jamelle Bouie / The American Prospect

Judging from the matching red t-shirts, bottled water, snack stands, and cover band playing a passable version of Marvin Gaye’s classic, “What’s Going On?”, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume there was a large and elaborate family reunion yesterday, held on the Capitol. But, in fact, it was a rally—organized by the Black American Leadership Alliance, a right-wing group with ties to white nationalists—to oppose the comprehensive immigration bill that has passed the Senate, and is fighting to survive in the House of Representatives.

Two things stood out about the event. First, even in the shade—and even with fans placed strategically around the area—it was hot. I would say it was too hot to be outside in the first place, but obviously, several hundred people disagreed with me. Or at least, opposed immigration reform enough to tolerate the conditions. And second, despite its organizers and its speakers—who were predominantly African American—the large bulk of the crowd was white. At best, there were a smattering of black faces, located at the edges of the group, seated away from the core of the gathering. Most of these faces were male, and like almost everyone there, they traveled from other parts of the country to join this demonstration.

Troy Warren is an unemployed graduate of the University of Wisconsin who came from Los Angeles, California, where he’s lived for the last seventeen years who says that immigration reform is an attempt to take jobs from blacks, and leave them impoverished. Indeed, he’s angry at the idea that African Americans won’t work the same jobs as “Mexicans.” “Look around,” he said, gesturing to the surrounding buildings, “We built this. The slaves. And if we built this, how can we not have the knowledge to work?”

(It’s worth pointing out that, at this point, he struck the drum on his shoulder, to emphasize the question.)

As for politics beyond immigration? When I asked if he liked President Obama, Warren said yes. “Yeah, I’m an Obama supporter. And I think he’s a good example. But he hasn’t done much for black people.”

This is what separated the black attendees from their white counterparts. While the white demonstrators were nearly unanimous in their disdain for President Obama—carrying signs slamming the president for Benghazi and allowing “amnesty”—the African American demonstrators ranged from careful ambivalence about the president, to outright support.

“I love President Obama,” said Gerald Pitts, founder of the “Milllennium Panthers,” an all-black anti-immigration group based out of LA, “I love the First Lady. I love their children. We support the president, completely. And if you fuck with him, I’ll protect him. I’ll be his top security.”

Dressed in military-esque gear, he waved his anti-immigration signs as he explained his stance. “If I did something illegally as a black man, I would be locked up. It’s a double standard,” Pitts said. “I’m a man of God, and I can’t have racism, sexism, or any kind of prejudice in my heart. But the law is the law.”

If there’s one thing that stood out about Warren, Pitts, and others, it was that their opposition to immigration reform—and their conservatism—had more to do with a kind of black nationalism than it did with any actual adherence to Tea Party ideology. Take Kenniss, a middle-aged woman who, in the precise voice of a grammar school teacher (she declined to tell me her occupation), took issue with the idea that all Americans were immigrants. “No African, living in their homeland begged for an opportunity to come here and work as free labor. Still, we were the basis for building this country.” Kenniss’ opposition to immigration reform had less to do with the identity of the immigrants (though she saw a double standard in the treatment of Latino immigrants versus Haitian ones), and everything to do with the idea that it was unfair. If anyone should receive assistance from the government—which, by and large, is how she saw reform—it should be the descendants of slaves.

As for the white attendees? They were there to oppose immigration reform, oppose Obama, and—yes—show their concern for black unemployment. “Adding more workers is irrational,” said Staci, a young single mother from Birmingham, Alabama, “Immigration reform will threaten jobs for black Americans, my children, and every American.” She was disappointed with the president, both for his policies, and for—as she saw it—squandering an opportunity to “bring the races together.” Instead, she said, citing Obama's decision to get involved in the Trayvon Martin controversy last year, “he’s done the most damage of any president to race relations.”

This comment points to something important. In addition to voicing opposition to the “Gang of Eight” bill, it seems that the goal of this event was to show—loudly—that the Tea Party is as diverse as it claims. Most of the speakers were conservative African American activists, who mixed their attacks on immigration with post-racial red meat—“We’re not African Americans, we’re Americans,” said Ted Hayes, an L.A.-based black Republican—and odd call outs to black culture. Hayes, for instance, ended his speech with a nod to Flavor Flav. “Yeeaaah boyeeee!”, he yelled, which was followed by a crowd-driven chant of “USA, USA, USA!”

Of all the speakers, however, the crowd was most enthusiastic for Texas senator Ted Cruz, who didn’t deviate from his typical approach of broad condemnation for the federal government. But for as much as attendees appreciated the display, all it did was emphasize the extent to which, outside of immigration, there’s not much that could plausibly connect the interests of black Americans to anti-government conservatives.

Indeed, if this rally was meant as a pitch to black voters—to enlist them in the fight against immigration reform—then, from conception to execution, it was doomed to fail. “I voted for Obama both times,” said Pitts, the man who also urged “anchor babies” to go back to their “home country.”

When it comes to black people, that—in a nutshell—is the Tea Party’s problem.