Racism and the Tea Party Movement

Don't believe the media hype.


Ever since the "Tea Parties" gained national attention, the debate has raged on whether they are a grass-roots protest movement in the proud tradition of American dissent, or a hysterical mob driven by fear, intolerance, and selfishness. Recently, two much-discussed surveys—a CBS/New York Times poll and a multi-state University of Washington poll—have been bandied about as proof that the leftist caricatures of the Tea Partiers as mean-spirited rich white bigots are accurate. Yet a look at the data suggests that this interpretation is highly skewed by political bias.

In a Salon.com article titled "The Tea Partiers' racial paranoia," editor Joan Walsh notes that in the University of Washington poll, only 35 percent of pro-Tea Party whites regarded blacks as "hard-working," 45 percent as "intelligent," and 41 percent as "trustworthy." Walsh scoffs, "And Tea Party supporters don't like it when anyone notices the racists in their midst?"

Not so fast. The respondents in the UW poll were asked to rate on a 1-7 scale how intelligent, hardworking, and trustworthy they perceived "almost all" blacks (and, in separate questions, whites, Latinos, and Asians) to be. Whether the findings expose Tea Party bigotry hinges on two things: how the "Tea Partiers'" opinions of blacks compare to their views of other groups, and how their answers compare to those of other, non-Tea-Partying Americans.

The UW researchers' initial analysis compared only whites who were strongly pro-Tea Party and strongly anti-Tea Party, concluding that the latter held a much more positive view of blacks. These data are no longer on the UW website; instead, there are tables for other race-related questions (such as "Over the past few years blacks have gotten less than they deserve"), with separate results for whites who were either neutral toward the Tea Party movement or had never heard of it, as well as for all whites.

But what about the racial stereotyping items? The lead investigator, political science professor Christopher Parker, graciously provided me with the fuller data—which strongly contradict the notion of the Tea Parties as a unique hotbed of racism.

Thus, while only 35 percent of strong Tea Party supporters rated blacks as hardworking, only 49 percent described whites as such. While the gap is evident, these responses are close to those for all whites (blacks are rated as "hardworking" by 40 percent, whites by 52 percent). While whites who are strongly anti-Tea Party seem free of bias on this item—blacks and whites are rated as "hardworking" by 55 percent and 56 percent, respectively—this is not true for intelligence and trustworthiness. Whites in every group are less likely to rate blacks than whites as "intelligent" by similar margins: 14 points for Tea Party supporters (45 percent vs. 59 percent), 13 points for all whites (49 percent vs. 62 percent), 10 points for Tea Party opponents (59 percent vs. 69 percent). On "trustworthy," the gap is smaller in the pro-Tea Party group (41 percent vs. 49 percent) than in the anti-Tea Party group (57 percent vs. 72 percent). One could write headlines about the "racial paranoia" of white liberals who consider blacks less trustworthy than whites!

The endurance of racial stereotypes in this day and age is disturbing; but Tea Party supporters differ little in this regard from mainstream Americans.  (It is also worth noting that, as in many other surveys, Asian-Americans in the UW poll are rated much more positively than whites.)

Compared to middle-of-the-road whites, Tea Party supporters show far more agreement with the statement that blacks should work their way up "without special favors" the way other minorities such as Italians and Jews did, or that blacks would be as well off as whites if they worked harder. The standard left-of-center view, shared by the UW researchers, is that such attitudes represent a subtler form of racism, or "racial resentment." In some cases, that is surely true. Yet these sentiments may also reflect a genuinely race-neutral belief in self-reliance and self-help—or the view, shared by many black commentators, that the black community's problems are partly rooted in damaging behavioral and cultural patterns.

John McWhorter, a noted black scholar and author whose works include the 2000 book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, says that "the idea that 'racism' is behind the Tea Partiers is based on a lazy and vain extension of the term 'racism' to meaning 'that which many black people would not approve of.'" According to McWhorter, "The position that the government does too much to help black people is not necessarily one based in inherent bias against people with black skin—it can be argued as a reasonable proposition based on the spotty record of social programs since the 1960s."

The other charge against Tea Partiers is that they are not "the people" but the privileged defending their privilege. Walsh gleefully points out that in the Times/CBS poll, 12 percent of Tea Party sympathizers had an annual income over $250,000—forgetting to mention that so did 11 percent of all Americans. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne asserts that "Tea Party enthusiasts … side with the better-off against the poor": 73 percent of them, versus 38 percent of all Americans, say that "providing government benefits to poor people encourages them to remain poor." (Of course, they couldn't possibly be sincere in the belief that poor people are often harmed more than helped by government programs.)

What, then, do the new polls tell us about the Tea Partiers—or, at least, Tea Party sympathizers? (In the Times/CBS poll, only one in five self-identified Tea Party supporters reported actual involvement in Tea Party activities.) They are mostly white and more likely to be male (59 percent); three-quarters are 45 and older, compared to half of all Americans. They are more religious than average, though not dramatically so: 39 percent are evangelical Christians and 38 percent attend church every week, while the figures for all Americans are 28 percent and 27 percent.

Not surprisingly, the Tea Partiers are disproportionately Republican and right-wing: 39 percent consider themselves "very conservative" and 34 percent "somewhat conservative" (compared to 12 percent and 24 percent, respectively, of the general population). Their conservatism, moreover, tends to be more authoritarian than libertarian: In the UW poll, pro-Tea Party respondents are much more likely than others to agree that the government should be able to detain suspects indefinitely without trial and to tap phones if there is a threat of terrorism.

In other words, the Tea Party movement is mainly conservative—which is hardly the stuff of headlines. That does not make it a haven for racists.

While the Tea Parties raise important questions about the growth of government, they certainly have their darker side: too often, they promote the politics of personal attack and demonization, of hyperbole and hysteria (though they are no more guilty of this than were Bush-era protesters on the left). Yet to respond with more hyperbole, demonization and hysteria directed at the Tea Partiers themselves will not address the problems but only compound the damage.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.