Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Is the Tea Party Racist?

The tea party has faced allegations of racism ever since the movement started. It didn’t exactly help the cause when Kentucky’s Republican nominee for the Senate, Rand Paul, expressed reservations about portions of the Civil Rights Act which prohibited discrimination by private organizations. Things have heated up over the past week as the NAACP came out with a resolution condemning what it perceives to be racist elements of the tea party.

I wonder what the effect of this will be politically. It surely won’t really give any tea partiers pause. Many of them think that the NAACP is just a tool of the Democratic Party, and that the organization throws the term “racist” too much. In fact many conservative tea partiers seem the type to oppose affirmative action and think that it is “reverse racism.” So they may actually welcome a fight with the NAACP.

The more important question is what the effect of this will be on moderate white voters in November who will decide the midterm elections. They may not be crazy about the NAACP either, but they don’t want to be affiliated with a group that is openly racist. Any candidate who openly panders to racist sentiments, or who has vocal racist supporters might be in danger of losing votes from these white moderates. For this reason, Republican candidates might be slightly more wary of the tea party, and could be on the lookout for a “Sister Souljah” moment where they can disown any racist elements in the tea party movement.

I actually suspect that the political effect will be negligible in the final analysis. The biggest issue as I have maintained for some time will be the economy. By November, voters will be thinking about whether they feel secure in their job and what the general direction of the economy is. Controversies like this will fade as people start heading to the voting booth.

The substance of these accusations is likewise hard to evaluate. It goes without saying that opposing expansion of government power, being hawkish on deficits, and wanting tax cuts don’t make a person a racist. It’s true that Blacks and tea partiers tend not to see eye to eye on the issues of the day. But one of the reasons is economic, not racial. Blacks are more likely than whites to be uninsured, and would benefit from extending insurance benefits to a wider swath of the population. Whites in the tea party are more likely to have health insurance and would like to avoid paying higher taxes to move to a healthcare system they’re leery of.

One of the most interesting arguments I’ve heard for why the tea partiers are racist is that tea partiers were silent about their fiscal concerns during the presidency of a white man, George W. Bush, but are vocal now that there is a black president, Barack Obama. While there is definitely hypocrisy here, I’m not sure racism is behind this discrepancy. Many of these tea partiers do identify with the Republican Party. They may have supported George W. Bush for his tax cuts and approach to the war on terrorism and wanted to keep John Kerry out of the White House in 2004. This provides a charitable explanation for why they are now protesting Obama’s deficit policies, but didn’t speak up about Bush’s. Democrats should be able to relate. After all, many of them were disgusted by Bill Clinton’s conduct during Monica-gate but declined to criticize him much, and in fact rallied around him to fend of the Republican attack on his presidency.