If the Tea Partiers have their way, racist rhetoric might be the least of our problems.
Brace yourself, people. You’re in for a real shock here.
But it seems, according to recent news accounts, that the Tea Party movement—that red-blooded, all-American, grassroots populist uprising against liberal fascism and capital-gains taxes—is partly grounded in white supremacy.
Who’d-a thunk it? I mean, I’ve personally covered many a Tea Party gathering in Texas where people of color were featured speakers! The fact that those speakers were often the only people of color in attendance was, of course, pure coincidence. The folks carrying inflammatory signs—“Congress=Slaveowner, Taxpayer=Niggar”—were, no doubt, simply making valid political points in intentionally misspelled ways. And when Gov. Rick Perry fired up Texas Tea Partiers by hollering “States’ Rights! States’ Rights! States’ Rights!” he surely had no idea that the phrase had been popularized by slaveholders and segregationists.
Okay, okay: enough of my snark. The controversy that’s broken out over the NAACP’s (remarkably polite) request that Tea Party people renounce its racist elements was inevitable and overdue. Unfortunately, it was immediately boiled down to a meaningless, ultimately unresolvable question: “Is the Tea Party racist?” Which makes for a couple of weeks’ worth of dandy cable-TV and talk-radio banter, and not much more. And which only distracts us all from the true substance—and genuine peril—of this loosely defined movement.
You could have scripted the whole “racist” flap with clairvoyant accuracy, long before it broke out. Liberals like Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee would make ritual, tut-tutting comparisons between the Tea Partiers and the KKK. Tea Partiers would, in turn, ritually denounce a particularly odious racist leader. (Such as Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams, who posted on his website a “Letter to Abe Lincoln,” purportedly written by “Precious Ben Jealous, Tom’s Nephew/NAACP Head/Colored Person,” which memorably concluded: “Mr. Lincoln, you were the greatest racist ever. We had a great gig. Three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massas in the house.”) Then everybody, on both sides, would emerge feeling even more self-righteous—and even more suspicious of one another.
And what are we ignoring amid this noisy dust-up? Just a small detail, really: the fact that if the Tea Partiers have their way, racist rhetoric will be the least of our problems.
The true ideology of the Tea Party was best summed up by the reactions of its champions to the BP oil spill. Perry blamed God. Texas Congressman “Smokey Joe” Barton tenderly and publicly smooched the buttocks of BP’s criminal-in-chief, Tony Hayward, apologizing for Obama’s “shakedown.” But nobody made things plainer than Tea Party hero Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Kentucky, who complained that President Obama, in daring to confront BP, “sounds really un-American in his criticism of business.”
And there you have it: the honest, unfiltered expression of Tea Party ideology at its root. It is un-American to criticize a corporation whose criminal negligence resulted in the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Why? Because in the ongoing American struggle between democracy and plutocracy, Tea Partiers are—whether the rank-and-file know it or not—tools of the plutocrats.
Government, as the sainted Ronald Reagan said, is the problem. Corporations (sorry: “free markets”) are the solution. Rank-and-file Tea Partiers might imagine that they’re striking a blow against illegal immigration, or against Reagan’s fictional “welfare queens,” or against Obama-style “socialism,” but in the end they are the loyal minions of the big-money masters.
It’s important, of course, to expose the racist undercurrents of the Tea Party movement. But in multiracial 21st-century America, white supremacists do not pose the threat that they did in the 19th and 20th centuries. They won’t prevent undocumented immigrants from eventually becoming citizens. They won’t roll back civil-rights laws. (Such things would be bad for business, after all.) But they damn well could, and very well might, help spirit us further down a slippery slope toward corporate hegemony. And the liberals busy decrying Tea Party racism and bigotry will discover, too late, that they’ve been bamboozled again—along with most of the Tea Partiers themselves.