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Race and the Tea Party: An Exchange Worth Reading

Charles Blow:

A Mighty Pale Tea: On Thursday, I came here outside Dallas for a Tea Party rally. At first I thought, “Wow! This is much more diverse than the rallies I’ve seen on television.” Then I realized that I was looking at stadium workers. I should have figured as much when I approached the gate. The greeter had asked, “Are you working tonight?” I sat in the front row. But when the emcee asked, “Do we have any infiltrators?” and I almost raised my hand, I realized that sitting there might not be such a good idea.

I had specifically come to this rally because it was supposed to be especially diverse. And, on the stage at least, it was. The speakers included a black doctor who bashed Democrats for crying racism, a Hispanic immigrant who said that she had never received a single government entitlement and a Vietnamese immigrant who said that the Tea Party leader was God. It felt like a bizarre spoof of a 1980s Benetton ad. The juxtaposition was striking: an abundance of diversity on the stage and a dearth of it in the crowd, with the exception of a few minorities like the young black man who carried a sign that read “Quit calling me a racist”...

Conor Freidersdorf:

Race as a Cudgel: In any context except a Tea Party, the vast majority of liberal writers would praise the act of highlighting the voices of “people of color” even if they aren’t particularly representative of a crowd or corporation or university class.... It’s this kind of piece that causes people on the right to think that on matters of race, they’re damned if they do, and they’re damned if they don’t — if they don’t make efforts to include non-whites they’re unenlightened propagators of privilege, and if they do make those efforts they’re the cynical managers of a minstrel show, but either way, race is used as a cudgel to discredit them in a way that would never be applied to a political movement on the left....

Adam Serwer:

There are cultural and historical reasons for that, which Friedersdorf doesn’t seem willing to acknowledge.... More to the point though, Blow’s reaction, which I think was unfair, was a visceral one related to seeing people of color engage in what Bouie refers to as the “elaborate tribal rituals” necessary for them to gain acceptance in a conservative setting.... Think about Republican Congressional Candidate Corey Poitier calling Obama “buckwheat,” or Michael Steele assuring Republicans that Obama only won because he’s black, or Marco Rubio insisting the president is an idiot savant who just knows how to read from a teleprompter. Is it any surprise that black conservatives feel like they have to engage in baroque gestures of solidarity, considering that merely being a black stranger in a conservative crowd puts one at risk of being mistaken for a member of ACORN?...

The disturbing implication of these events is that many conservatives use skin color as a shorthand for identifying those who are “on their team,” and Friedersdorf seems uninterested in addressing this.... If you think the old tribal instincts can’t be rekindled on the left, I would direct you to some of the liberal reactions to Prop 8’s passage in California. No party or ideology has a monopoly on racism, but let’s not pretend that there isn’t anything implicitly racial or problematic about a movement that claims the mantle of being “real Americans” and just happens to be overwhelmingly white....

Where Blow is reductive, Friedersdorf is oblivious. Friedersdorf writes that he is certain that the Tea Partiers Blow criticizes are “interesting people with honestly held convictions that are understandable outgrowths of their reason and experience.” Of course. But why is part of their experience having to try so hard to convince their ideological cohorts they’re on the same side? Instead of asking this question, Friedersdorf whines that conservatives are held to a different standard on issues of race than liberals, which is a funny question to ask during Confederate History Month...

Conor Friedersdorf:

There are, in fact, cultural and historical reasons for everything. I am perfectly willing to acknowledge all the culture and history related to race, politics, conservatism, and political opportunism. They don’t change the fact that in this case, race is unfairly used “as a cudgel to discredit them in a way that would never be applied to a political movement on the left.”... Yes, Mr. Blow was writing about his visceral reactions. But did he actually see the minorities at that rally engage in “elaborate tribal rituals”?... [T]today’s populist conservatives basically demand “baroque gestures of solidarity” from white people too. If Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin were black, Mr. Serwer would be pointing to the former’s “let’s double Gitmo” comment and the latter’s whole oeuvre as evidence that movement conservatism rewards only those minorities who offer baroque gestures of solidarity....

[T]he right’s “real Americans” nonsense isn’t about race. Trust me, Sarah Palin is denigrating Ivy League colleges, the richest households in Manhattan, and coastal dwelling white liberals far more than, for example, black folks in Mississippi or Hmong in Wisconsin.... I am hardly blind to Confederate History Month, or the subset of Southern conservatives whose ideas about race in America are quite wrongheaded. I just think its nonsense to invoke those conservatives in order to defend a New York Times column that Mr. Serwer himself calls “unfair” and “reductive,” or to call someone oblivious because they don’t include in every blog post on race a paragraph that says, “To be sure, it is understandable for a writer to pen a wrongheaded, reductive column attacking conservatives as minstrel show managers given the fact that some other conservatives who are completely uninvolved in this particular controversy hold problematic views on the subject of race.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Diversity Is Work: I think what Conor is missing here is a real historical context for the exchange between modern liberalism and black America. Old school liberals will recall exceedingly nasty conversations between blacks and their would-be white allies stretching back to the days of the Scottsboro Boys through the James Baldwin's meeting with Robert F. Kennedy, to the Weathermen and the Panthers, through Hillary's run against Obama. The sense among some white liberals that they were "damned if they do, damned if they don't" was part of the work. The sense among some blacks that white liberals didn't actually get it, and were just rebelling against Daddy, (or some such) was part of the work. In a modern context, many of us who supported Obama thought that Bill Clinton's Jesse Jackson riff was appalling and low. And many of us who supported Hillary thought that, while liberals had an eye out for any whiff of racism, sexism was basically yawned at. And yet through it all, blacks have allied themselves, in the main, with liberals. They haven't done this because they support the entire liberal agenda, or because they think liberalism is an implicit cure-all for racism. They've done it because because reconciling the country to its own diversity is at the core of modern liberalism--it's the foundation to the house, not the paint-job.... Lyndon Johnson didn't simply look for black people to window-dress existing policy, he expanded existing policy in a way that showed a policy commitment--at great political cost--to healing the country's oldest wound, and, in the process, he purged the party of people who had vested interest in jabbing at the wound.

I understand that Conor is talking about something slightly different--the negative effect of what he sees as bad faith criticism of any right-wing efforts to diversify. But the point I'm making is that diversity--for lack of a better word--is a long-term, ongoing process, one that rarely includes merit badges from your friends or foes. I wrote this before, but diversity and tolerance are about attempting to understand people who are radically different from you, and saying to them you want their voice in the process. Tolerance isn't just a value you hold, so much as it's something you do repeatedly. It's uncomfortable. You f--- up. You go to parties where they play music that you don't know how to dance to. You go to restaurants where the food is difference. You go to neighborhoods, where no one speaks English. The whole time people on the outside are laughing at you. The people you're trying to understand get pissed at you, and call you racist, homophobe, bigot, sexist etc. But they ultimately respect you for trying. And you get better....

I think Blow's most strongest point was here:

It was a farce. This Tea Party wanted to project a mainstream image of a group that is anything but. A New York Times/CBS News poll released on Wednesday found that only 1 percent of Tea Party supporters are black and only 1 percent are Hispanic. It's almost all white. And even when compared to other whites, their views are extreme and marginal. For instance, white Tea Party supporters are twice as likely as white independents and eight times as likely as white Democrats to believe that Barack Obama was born in another country. Furthermore, they were more than eight times as likely as white independents and six times as likely as white Democrats to think that the Obama administration favors blacks over whites.

A serious campaign of diversity would have to open itself not simply to blacks who are worried about the deficit, and think that health care reform was a bad idea, but those who also think that birtherism is insane, that the notion that Obama favors blacks says more about the beholder than Obama. And then it would have to actually broaden its policy reach--the Drug War and incarceration rates seem like a natural fit. Or even representation for Chocolate City.

Jonathan Bernstein:

Minstrelsy, Rituals, the Tea Parties, and Conservatives: Liberals attack other liberals all the time for tokenism, or for being insufficiently inclusive, or for other perceived and/or real violations of inclusiveness, respect, and other values of diversity.  Really; there's a whole history of this.... [C]ontext and history matter... conservatives who opposed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills are going to get extra scrutiny... conservatives who oppose the policy preferences of the vast majority of African Americans are going to get extra scrutiny... conservatives who hang out with birthers and race-baiters are going to going to get extra scrutiny... conservatives who cover for those who use ugly epithets against John Lewis, American hero (and Barney Frank, and others) are going to get extra scrutiny.... [B]est behavior does not include throwing back accusations of racism at others; it means doubling down on efforts to purge their group of any hint of bigotry.

You know what I think?  We're all grown-ups here; we can speak plainly.  Republicans made a choice to appeal to people who didn't like blacks (and gays, and a variety of other "others"). They have reaped benefits from that; there are also costs. Some people now who weren't even born when Republicans made that choice and who are attracted to conservative ideas -- and are not bigots in any way -- don't like the fact that conservatives including themselves have to suffer that extra scrutiny, because it ain't their fault, so why are they pegged with the it? Well, tough luck. You choose who you hang out with.... Not that Conor Friedersdorf has anything to apologize for.... But not so for the leaders of the Tea Parties, and not so for many of the leaders of the Republican Party. Friedersdorf is wrong to believe that race is unfairly being used as a "cudgel to discredit them."  It's their own acts of commission and omission, their own tolerance of ugly signs and rumors and slogans, their own fealty to Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh and the rest of it, that discredits them....

I suppose the thing that really set me off is [Friedersdorf's] analysis of "real Americans" talk:

Look, I do think some conservatives have a problematic tendency... but the right’s “real Americans” nonsense isn’t about race. Trust me, Sarah Palin is denigrating Ivy League colleges, the richest households in Manhattan, and coastal dwelling white liberals far more than, for example, black folks in Mississippi or Hmong in Wisconsin. 

C'mon. First of all, I haven't seen too many Tea Parties or Sarah Palin rallies among border Latino communities, or for that matter among "black folks in Mississippi or Hmong in Wisconsin." I have, however, seen people at Tea Parties and Sarah Palin rallies waving signs that sure looked racist to me.... Palin and Tea Party fans hear ethnicity when conservatives talk about "real Americans" or talk about "taking back America." Second of all, those "coastal dwelling white liberals" in places like Hollywood, San Francisco, and New York... well, it ain't only about race.... Does Friedersdorf really believe that New York is attacked because it's rich, and not because it's... er... um... I think the word I'm looking for is cosmopolitan? Really?...

[A] blog post about Tea Parties and race that never mentions the problematic history of the Tea Party groups and race, and follow-up that treats history and context as if it's only vaguely relevant to that topic, is a stretch.

OK, that's it, but I do highly recommend each of the items cited surprise, but TNC's post is powerful.stuff, and really a must-read.