Are Tea Parties Racist?

Sifting through the anti-Obama-hysteria hysteria


In retrospect, I suppose I should be surprised it took as long as eight months for someone to accuse me of racism in my criticism of Barack Obama. After all, by September 11, when Salon Editor in Chief Joan Walsh wrote that my "strange slur" against the president was a textbook example of "the racial nuttiness that Obama faces," just about every person loudly opposing the administration's economic policies had already been tarred with the same brush.

It started in early August, as members of Congress began facing their unusually restive constituents in a series of town hall meetings. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, citing not one shred of contemporary sociological evidence, asserted that "the driving force behind the town hall mobs" is "cultural and racial anxiety" on the part of the "angry white voter." Within a month, that bit of omniscient whitey baiting was perilously close to conventional wisdom.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne warned that the town hall protests exemplified "the politics of the jackboot," comparing them directly to "lynching" and concluding that "it is profoundly troubling that firearms should begin to appear with some frequency at a president's public events only now, when the president is black." (There have been exactly two Obama appearances at which protesters outside the venue openly carried handguns. In both cases the acts were legal, and in one of them the gun-toting protesters included a black man.) 

After Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted "You lie!" during Obama's September 9 address to Congress, Krugman's page mate Maureen Dowd wrote, "Some people just can't believe a black man is president and will never accept it." She added, "Fair or not, what I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy!"

Generally speaking, when key evidence is "unspoken," and in fact imagined by the prosecution, it's a good bet that the overall case is weak. The same goes for relying on explanatory sociology dating from the early 1960s. During the summer, racism baiters such as New York Times columnist Frank Rich ("the atmosphere keeps getting darker"), Newsweek's Susan Jacoby ("This toxic brew of racism and class resentment is rooted in anti-rationalism"), and Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez ("the first black president, as well as the deep economic recession, have challenged Americans' sense of self") cited the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter's famous essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" (which is not primarily about race). "The biggest contributor to this resurgence of radicalism," Rich wrote in a typical passage, "remains panic in some precincts about a new era of cultural and demographic change."

Hofstadter's essay was published in November 1964. At the time, it was still illegal for blacks to marry whites in 19 states. Black professional football players were still denied service in posh New Orleans hotels and restaurants. Discriminatory poll taxes and ballot box literacy tests were still widespread. In short, race relations have changed quite a bit since then, as illustrated by the fact that we now have a black president.

But in a genuinely curious turn of events, Obama's race—after failing to provoke any significant appeals to white fear or resentment during the long 2008 campaign—has now become a central factor in the eyes of people frustrated by the volume and effectiveness of the opposition. So Salon's Walsh, after having previously complained about "GOP zealots" who were blocking health care reform, read between the lines of an online column I wrote about the president's September 9 speech and declared that it would "go down in history as one of the dumbest white-boy outbursts in the history of covering Obama."

My racist slip? In a throwaway line and hyperlink, I had compared Obama's warning to those spreading lies about his health care plan—"We will call you out"—to the chorus of a new Snoop Dogg song I'd been listening to in heavy rotation: "We will shut you down." Where my mind registered the similarity of two five-syllable phrases containing three of the same words, Walsh's projection of my mind saw "totally gratuitous racial imagery" and the implication that Obama emulates gangsta rappers.

Contra Walsh, history basically ignored my "outburst," but a fat new target marched into view the very next day, when roughly 100,000 protesters descended on the National Mall to demonstrate against Obama's economic policies. "It was a Klan rally minus the bedsheets and torches," William Rivers Pitt, a former spokesman for Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), wrote at Truthout.org. "It's obvious to anyone who has eyes in this country," comedian/political activist Janeane Garofalo said on HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, "that teabaggers, the 9/12ers, these separatist groups that pretend it's about policy, they are clearly white identity movements; they are clearly white-power movements." And in the biggest endorsement of the "racial anxiety" hypothesis yet, former President Jimmy Carter fired this warning shot across America's bow: "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African-American," Carter told NBC Nightly News three days after the protest.

So were these nightmarish descriptions of the 9/12 protest accurate? Was the "overwhelming portion" of demonstrators motivated by racism? Unlike any of the critics mentioned above, I actually attended the rally. And despite looking specifically for white-boy outbursts during four hours and across dozens of conversations, I didn't see any.

This is not to say they weren't there. Thanks to the magic of ubiquitous digital cameras, motivated partisans, and the Internet, I was able to ascertain after the fact that there was a poster featuring Obama with a bone through his nose, another showing the president in Robin Hood get-up with the charming headline "Robbin' for the Hood," and a scattering of Confederate flags.

But if there was anything "overwhelming" about the protest it was the percentage—which I would place well above 90—of signage and conversation specifically referring to government spending, economic policy, and creeping federal interference into various areas of life. I saw nothing about affirmative action, nothing about welfare, nothing about illegal immigration, almost nothing about hot-button social conservative issues, and very little on foreign policy. If race played a central role, 100,000 people did a good job of hiding it.

Yes, there were many, many placards hyperbolically comparing Obama's policies with those of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, proving once again that Americans of all stripes continue to despise the two worst totalitarian (and murderously racist) systems yet attempted. And the protest's single biggest celebrity endorser (see Greg Beato's "Glenn Beck's Experimental Melodrama," page 14), did create a stir earlier this year with an asinine comment that Obama has "a deep-seated hatred for white people." But even that sentiment was not visible to my naked eye on September 12.

So is the Tea Parties = racism meme a sincere expression of anxiety about resurgent racist violence? A knowingly inaccurate attempt at political marginalization? Whatever was behind this summer's hysteria, it seems reasonable to assume that the next three or seven years will feature more of the same.

Call me an incurable Californian, but I see reasons to hope otherwise. President Obama himself smothered much of the rhetoric by telling David Letterman, "I think it's important to realize that I was actually black before the election." Jimmy Carter, no doubt under pressure from the administration, backpedaled on his racism claims two weeks after he made them. And most hopefully of all, the kind of overt or thinly coded appeals to white racial resentment and nativist paranoia that have stained generations of American politicians have been marginalized in right-of-center politics. Whether Jimmy Carter will get around to noticing how much America has changed for the better remains to be seen.