How odd and telling that in a Facebook post responding to an NAACP resolution on supposed Tea Party racism, Sarah Palin would create a new victimary group: “Tea Party Americans.” Palin uses this phrase five times in the post, even while arguing at times eloquently, at times clumsily, against “divisive politics.”
Focusing on elements within the Tea Party movement rather than the Tea Party as a whole, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous summed up the NAACP’s demand: “You must expel the bigots and racists in your ranks or take full responsibility for all of their actions.” Echoing Tea Party activists in St. Louis and around the country, Palin’s main reply is to deny the charges outright, while accusing the NAACP of crude political motives, and while trying to change the subject to the Tea Party’s issues agenda. What neither side seems able to address is the underlying basis for their conflict, which over a long history has tied “racial matters” and issues of governance together.
Telling stories about a visit with husband Todd’s Eskimo family and relying on the words and the example of (African American) Congressional candidate Tim Scott, Palin claims, in effect, that some of her best friends, best relatives, and best candidates are non-white, and that nothing could be further from the minds of Tea Party Americans than judging people by the color of their skin. Furthermore, it hurts their feelings to be called racists:
Having been on the receiving end of a similar spurious charge of racism…, I know how Tea Party Americans feel to be falsely accused. To be unjustly accused of association with what Reagan so aptly called that “legacy of evil” is a traumatizing experience, and one of which the honest, freedom-loving patriots of the Tea Party movement are truly undeserving.
While trying to move from victimization to political re-assertion, Palin insists that the NAACP could have been motivated only by bad faith – an intent to harm the Tea Party rather than to express a potentially valid concern:
The only purpose of such an unfair accusation of racism is to dissuade good Americans from joining the Tea Party movement or listening to the common sense message of Tea Party Americans who simply want government to abide by our Constitution, live within its means, and not borrow and spend away our children’s futures. Red and yellow, black and white, this message is precious in all our sights.
Some will hear an amusing and homely Sunday school allusion in that clumsy last line. “Tea Party Americans” probably also enjoy the spectacle of someone fighting back uncompromisingly rather than lending any credence at all to the complaint.
For the very same reason, however, those who never believed in a stark dividing line between a racist and “post-racial” society may find Palin’s approach off-putting and demeaning. Nor does shifting the subject to the Tea Party’s agenda rebut the charges: To someone who believes that there is still work to be done on matters of race, changing the subject confirms hostility and incomprehension. More important, mere denial ignores history, which did not begin with Ronald Reagan’s condemnations of racism. It ignores obvious and inescapable facts about the Tea Party constituency. And it ignores the implications of any radical action to curb domestic spending and the size of the public sector.
A more honest and possibly more disarming response from Palin, on behalf of her fellow Tea Party Americans, would have been to concede the obvious elements of truth to the charges, and to offer to join the NAACP and others in rooting out bigotry and insensitivity in the movement. Such a response might even help to broaden the movement, and the vision of those already in it.
“Yes, it’s true, of course,” Palin could have said. “Just as there are still racist and racially insensitive people in America, any large movement – the Tea Party, both major political parties, and any sizable group including the NAACP itself – will include people whose consciousness could stand some raising.
“In the Tea Party,” Palin might have continued, “we seek to learn from history, and we understand how movements for smaller government, fiscal responsibility, and restraint on the federal government – sometimes under the label of ‘states’ rights’ – have in the past been aligned with forces of bigotry.
“We understand that going back at least as far as the Civil War and in other ways to the founding of the country, there has been overlap between those who indict overreach from the federal government and those seeking to protect special interests and privileges, including ones based on racism at its ugliest. We understand that African Americans in particular have long experience in which the federal government stood with them against forces of bigotry entrenched and often institutionalized at the state and local level. It’s not by chance that African Americans have generally come to favor a more activist federal government.
“And we fully understand that any major effort to rein in and reduce government programs, many of them originally intended to aid victims of past discrimination, must be undertaken with basic fairness to all uppermost in all our minds. We invite the NAACP and others concerned about racial equality and harmony to help us develop strategies for coping with the hard choices that lay before us all, whether we like it or not, and that must not be allowed to set us against each other along racial or other social battle lines.”
The open question is whether “Tea Party Americans” really do understand any of that. Until they give a strong sign of it, the charge will tend to stick – and, worse, will have an element of truth to it, even while turning the Tea Party into another special interest, another group of Americans who see things their way only, or not at all.