Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Are members of the Tea Party racist? Sure. Racism still exists in America, and it wouldn’t be too surprising to find that some members of the Tea Party movement have latent racist beliefs. But even as the prevalence of racism in America steadily declines, Democrats exploit the serious issue of race to discredit their opponents. It doesn’t stop there. Some liberal operatives, it seems, are so cynical that they want bigotry to persist in order to facilitate ‘progress.’ Fortunately, however, racism is far less common than some liberals seem to hope.
Last Wednesday the New York Times profiled the surging Tea Party movement, citing recent poll data on members’ support for small government, concern about a developing public takeover of the private sector, and dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama.
The next day I overheard a Swarthmore Physics professor make an unqualified claim that all tea partiers are racist. I pushed him on this, asking him if he seriously believed that every member of the Tea Party movement is racist, and he did not adjust his claim. He isn’t alone.
Earlier this week, fellow Gazette Columnist David Sterngold made a similar argument. He suggests that tea partiers hide their latent race issues under a veil of concern for the increasing size of government. According to Sterngold, white Tea Party supporters are actually worried that “minority races are usurping white political and economic dominance.”
This is contradictory. Assuming Sterngold’s claims about Tea Party supporters are consistent, it must be that advocates believe that losing economic dominance follows from increased government spending (on welfare, for instance). But no one really believes that affluence (and a corresponding ‘usurpation of white economic dominance’) comes to those who get by on government assistance. In fact, economists tend to conjecture that Americans’ relative distaste for big government comes from an innate concern that high taxes to pay for more public services will hinder a future personal rise to affluence. Beliefs that increased welfare to minorities stands to decrease white economic dominance is incompatible with fundamental tea party beliefs that economic freedom and small government lead to greater affluence for all. Under Sterngold’s amazingly unjustified cynicism, Tea Party advocates would want more liberalized welfare programs to decrease the chances of nonwhites at becoming richer.
Sterngold’s claim becomes even more ridiculous when we recall that as of 2007 whites had fifteen times more wealth, on average, than the average African-American or Latino household. Tea Party supporters are more wealthy than average, so it’s even less likely that advocates believe what Sterngold claims.
Democrats also go out of their way to look for racism. Before Congress passed the healthcare bill, African American Democrat Representatives John Lewis, Andre Carson, and Emanuel Cleaver reported that Tea Party activists hurled the N-word their way as they walked toward Capitol Hill. Hoping to find more racist Americans in the crowd, the three Congressmen returned to the angry mob armed with video cameras, but they caught no evidence of racism.
According to Associated Press writer, Jesse Washington’s research, the only evidence of the time during which this allegedly took place is a 22-second video clip taken by American Progress think tank employee, Lee Fang. Although Fang didn’t hear anything because he was across the street (Constitution Avenue––an eight-lane road) from the action, he noted that the “hatred was palpable.” Fang has no evidence other than his emotions. Nevertheless, he and members of the Swarthmore community call foul based on an unsubstantial predisposition to believe rich white conservatives must be racist.
Sterngold doesn’t even honestly report the results of the NYT poll. He writes, “A significantly higher percentage of Tea Party supporters, compared with the general public, believe that Obama administration favors blacks over whites.” This is true, but misleading. Sterngold is referring to the NYT finding that “25 percent think that the administration favors blacks over whites—compared with 11 percent of the general public.” Sterngold’s claim might technically hold, but what’s more significant is that only one in four Tea Party supporters believe this. If this is Sterngold’s statistical proxy for racism, then it’s true that 75 percent of Tea Party supporters are not racist. This is not sufficient evidence to support a thousand words of indignant pontification.
One liberal activist even created the site crashtheteaparty.org to organize infiltration of tea party protests on tax return day to capture and exaggerate the least appealing qualities of the movement. Jason Levin, the primary organizer, hoped to use this evidence to turn the American public against the movement. Levin told the Associated Press, “Do I think every member of the tea party is a homophobe, racist or a moron? No, absolutely not. [But] do I think most of them are homophobes, racists or morons? Absolutely.”
Of course, if most tea party members were bigots, Levin’s efforts to exaggerate the movement’s bigotry would be rather superfluous. Nevertheless, Levin organized over sixty-five leaders in major cities to capture this bigotry. Although we haven’t heard anything from Levin since April 15, it’s rather frightening that Levin and his supporters hope to find lots of “homophobes, racists, [and] morons” in major cities around America.
Behind tea party critics’ claims of isolated and sometimes unverified instances of racism is an unwillingness to acknowledge and respond to tea party supporters’ legitimate concerns about surging government deficits, disingenuous cost assessments of legislation, and broken campaign promises. There’s no doubt that Democrats can profit politically from accusing opponents of racism: If Republicans are racist, Democrats —Republicans’ opposition — are not and must be a better party. Further, with Republicans’ image in flames, Democrats are no longer responsible to respond to criticism because no one cares what racists think.
To be fair, it’s possible that Democrats are unsure of how to engage with an opponent that they perceive to disingenuously criticize ‘government takeovers’ when such takeovers aren’t immediately evident. If Tea Party interests cannot be explained reasonably, it might be that they are unreasonable and come from latent race issues. But this explanation isn’t so credible. As Democrats look to regulate health, energy, and financial markets, supporters must understand how these efforts might, in some minds, constitute a ‘government takeover’ of private markets, no matter how sensible these reforms might seem.
But race has little do with it. Pretending otherwise is cynical, dishonest, and remains mostly unsubstantiated.