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Bill Berkowitz: Race and the Tea Party Movement

Race and the Tea Party Movement

By Bill Berkowitz, BuzzFlash
Tuesday, 12.15.09

The Tea Party movement has been one of the most interesting political developments over the past year. The raucous rallies, the shout downs at Town Hall meetings, the gun-toting demonstrators, the offensive signage have all drawn the attention of the media. Questions about the character of the movement have abounded. Is it a grassroots movement, or has it been organized and funded by Washington, DC-based conservative organizations? Could it be both? Is it mainly concerned with economic issues (government spending, taxes, deficits) or are social issue (abortion, same-sex marriage) of interest to tea partiers? Are there several factions with the movement?

And while tea partiers made a lot of noise this past summer doing their best to put the kybosh on health care reform, is there a future for the movement? A recent Rasmussen Poll suggests that there might be. According to the poll, as Joe Garofoli reported recently in the San Francisco Chronicle, "More people (23 percent) supported a generic Tea Party candidate than a Republican … while 36 percent of those surveyed supported a Democrat."

However, there is one issue that appears to raise the hackles of Tea Party participants and sympathizers and could stymie its growth: the role that race plays in the movement. Tea Party events have become a safe haven for racists who carry racist anti-Obama signs. People of color have stayed away from Tea Party activities. Members of white nationalist organizations participate in, and view the movement as a fertile recruiting ground. And, questions about how much the tea partiers overlaps with the anti-immigration movement might be answered when an immigration reform bill is taken up next year.

Last month, I wrote a story for BuzzFlash about the new film "Tea Party: The Documentary" (Move over Michael Moore, here comes 'TEA PARTY: The Documentary'). The film, which has since premiered, was, at the time of my story, generating some buzz within the Tea Party community.

In the piece, I raised a question about racism.
"The documentary appears to have a lot of explaining to do: Given the overtly racist sentiments expressed on many of the signs carried by Tea Partiers since the advent of the movement, and the nearly all-white makeup of the crowds, the press release [for the film] claimed that the documentary will deal with the 'allegations of racism.'"
I interviewed Joel Aaron Foster, the writer on the documentary project, for the story. I asked him a series of general questions about the film. He promptly responded. In a follow-up e-mail, I asked a few more questions including this one:
"Many Tea Party critics have alleged that this is a movement tinged by racism, maintaining that some of the signs that are carried at the demos cross the line. At the rallies there are a small number of African Americans and even a lesser number of Latinos in attendance. How do you respond to these perceptions?"
Foster did not respond at press time. After the piece was posted, I sent it to him and again asked about racism in the movement. He hasn't responded.

Shortly after my piece appeared, however, John Hawkins, who runs a blog called Right Wing News, did respond in a blog post titled "The Tea Parties Are Racist? How Silly."

A few years ago, I did an extensive interview with Hawkins for a story I did for Media Transparency. The piece, titled "John Hawkins: A strident right-wing voice in a crowded blogosphere," dealt with some of the Swift-Boat-type tactics against Barack Obama that were just beginning to emerge prior to the official launch of the presidential campaign. The piece explored how Hawkins, a relatively unknown conservative blogger and columnist, intended to use his assorted platforms during the presidential campaign.

Hawkins pointed out that I "once did a pretty good interview with" him. Regarding racism and the Tea Party movement, Hawkins acknowledged that there were "A teeny, tiny percentage of people who've gone to hundreds of events across the country [that] have taken signs that could fairly be called racist."

However, Hawkins insisted, that "Those people are embarrassments and pretty much everyone else at the rallies would prefer that those idiots left their stupid racist signs at home if they came at all."

Then Hawkins tackled the overall charges of Tea Partier racism:
"As to the allegations of racism, they're so silly that they're one step away from alleging that the Tea Parties are run by the Illuminati. When you have a crowd full of conservatives who have for decades loathed out-of-control spending, socialism, and exploding government and the most radical left-wing President this country has ever had is trying to transform the nature of our nation in a year, only a moron could think the protests are about his being black.
"Last but not least, noting that the tea parties must be racist because a lot of minorities don't come to the rallies is a ridiculous concept. I once went with my cousin to a Bobby Brown concert when I was a teenager. I think we saw 4 white people at the concert total, including us. Now, does that mean Bobby Brown hates white people because more of us didn't show up? Hell no. He probably would have loved for more white people to show up because he would have made more money.

"Well, guess what? The people at the Tea Parties would also love for more blacks and Hispanics to show up at the Tea Parties. The more people the better -- and if blacks and Hispanics don't show up, it doesn't make the Tea Parties racist any more than it made Bobby Brown racist because there were almost no white people at his concert. If people choose not to come to a rally that's dedicated to patriotism, fiscal responsibility, and protecting this country's legacy for our kids, it says more about them than it does about the nature of the Tea Parties."
Are the racist elements within the Tea Party movement an aberration scorned by most Tea Party participants as Hawkins insisted, or are they more firmly entrenched than Hawkins would care to admit? I turned to Devin Burghart for some answers to these questions. Burghart, who for the past 17 years has researched and written on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism, is currently the vice president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR).

Burghart pointed out that "the tea parties themselves are made up of a diverse bloc of different political elements, and white nationalists have chosen to make a stand inside the tea parties. The exact extent of the racist element inside the Tea Parties is difficult to quantify, because they are not a static phenomena, and it depends on who shows up. That said, it's enough of a factor to attract the attention of a significant portion of the white nationalist movement.

"It's not a matter of how many African-American or Latino/a folks show up at these tea parties, it's about the content and character of the arguments made at them," Burghart added. Not only have "tea partiers have turned up with overtly racist signs and slogans," at rallies "from coast to coast," but also many participants "cling to the belief that our first African-American president is not only un-American, he was not even born in the country."

Unfortunately, Burghart noted, "There's little evidence to indicate that tea party leaders are doing anything to address the racism in their ranks."

Burghart said that he was not surprised that "tea party activists would deny their racism," after all, "racists have been denying their racism even before pro-secessionist bigots couched their arguments in bogus claims about states' rights." However, "To anyone with any degree of sensitivity to the issue, the tea parties have clearly shown themselves to be racist, in the lineage of George Wallace -- who when he campaigned up North eschewed talk of racial segregation in favor ranting against 'elites.'"


Bill Berkowitz is a widely published journalist and regular contributor to BuzzFlash.


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