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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Why I Think the Tea Party Movement is Racist

For once, I'm not posting about wine. This is a response to a Facebook post from the politicially-oriented, very conservative "Johnny's Blog Thingy!!!" that links to a video of a tea party rally in which non-ranting, patriotic people are stirred by a retired Marine's spontaneous singing of the last verse of the Star-Spangled Banner. The upshot of the post is that tea partyers are not ranting, raving, racist lunatics but are, rather, concerned patriots who are acting together to make their nation a better place.

I am certain that, despite what seems to me to be a just-barely-concealed current of real, and fierce, anger running throughout the tea party movement, most of the movement’s adherents are just like this guy and the people cheering him—honest patriots who want their country to be the greatest nation on earth and a beacon of freedom to all people.

But what most of them don’t realize is that the very idea that there is a left that is systematically waging a war on Judeo-Christian values has an insidious kind of racism built into it, even if that racism is not something consciously promulgated by the people whose actions nevertheless have this ill effect. (But I also think it's time for Americans to acknowledge that the kind of vicious racism many of us thought died with the last generation and the success of civil rights has not gone away and is still frighteningly, distressingly common.) What seems like an onslaught from the left is, far more often than not (and with full acknowledgement that the left has its share of nut cases, too) an attempt to make the U.S. a place that is open and welcoming to people who can’t trace their roots back to Thomas Jefferson, or William Penn, or one of the people on the Mayflower. It’s an effort to acknowledge that the history of the U.S. is more than just the chopped down apple tree, Davy Crockett, the shores of Tripoli, and the Saturday Evening Post. But it’s precisely this opening up of culture—this acknowledgement that we are, and always have been, a deeply, profoundly, multi-ethnic, multilingual, multi-religion society—that feels like an attack to most conservatives and especially tea-party folks (who, despite the color of the man in the video, are an overwhelmingly white group), for whom the privilege that comes with being white and Christian in this country has never felt like privilege—only like basic fairness. This sense that some better, apple-pie-eating, God-fearing America has been lost and needs to be regained is, by and large, a reaction to the increasingly officially acknowledged, if also to many people unsettling, reality that U.S. history, and the U.S. itself, is far more complex and multi-colored than most of us Christian white folks ever knew, or ever could have known.

Put simply, it boils down to this: we’ve had the luxury of having our stories about the history and identity and character of the U.S. be the stories about the history and identity and character of the country. But there are lots of stories that can be told, and lots of ways to tell them. When it’s done right—as it most often is—righting that wrong is what the so-called PC revolution has been about.

I know we all have equal rights under the law. But the U.S. has always been a place that favors white Christians in terms of actual opportunity and actual justice. So even the recourse to such standards as “the law of the land” or, in educational settings, “basics,” “merit,” or “achievement” is in effect racist, because they assume that theoretical equality is the same as actual equality, when in fact legal rights and educational opportunities have always been distributed very much in favor of “us” and against “them.” My hope is that this point, articulated as I just have, resonates with the right wing of this country, who have always been distrustful of theory and its potential to be utterly disconnected from reality.

So when I think of, and portray in my own work, the far right in this country as racist, I do so with the understanding that racist effects can emanate from actions based on motives that feel pure, and even altruistic, to the people committing those actions. It’s time for all of us to acknowledge that fact and work together to build a truly, and fully democratic America, both in theory and in practice.

For other writings of mine along these lines, see this facebook exchange and this previous post on this blog.

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At 11:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lance, I read your blog on this subject and while in some ways I agree with you I also find it a very over simplified response to the Tea Party movement. Are their racist's among them? Yes. There are racist's among the far left as well. There are people that simply USE minorities to further their agenda with little or no real concern for their heritage. They hijack their votes by fear mongering about the "racists" on the right. I believe Obama has been MASTERFUL at this. He has used race as a weapon on many occasions. He has gotten free passes a white man would not get due to his race. Perverting someones race, even if you share it, is in essence just as racist. But painting a whole block of people as "racist" is in itself, well, racist. Its the same thing. Can we say the KKK is racist? Yes. Not because they all look alike and wear white sheets and robes, but because their charter says they are. But painting an entire political movement as racist because they dont swallow PC hook, line, and sinker is assumative and humbly wrong. Just because the "good old days" were a product of a more racist society does not make someone who wishes life was more like those days a racist any more than making me a racist because the milk I drink is white. Also shifting racism until it is in the favor of those whom USED to be the victims of it does not make it any "less" racist, i.e. "affirmitave action". I understand you wanting to blog on your own page, but I hope in the future if in response to my blog you will consider doing it there and then copy and pasting it here so that the others on my page can benefit from the exchange. :) Take care Lance.

At 3:49 PM, Blogger Lance said...

As has been the case with most people I've engaged on this topic, Johnny, I think we're doomed to talk past one another instead of with or to one another. Maybe that's the unfortunate fate of political discourse in a postmodern world. My point was precisely that the movement is racist in its effects, even though it is largely composed of honest, well-meaning people who, individually, are *not* racist--at least not in the sense of thinking "I hate X group of people." It's difficult to wrap one's mind around the fact that a group of good people acting together for what they believe are good reasons can have bad effects, but I believe that's precisely what's going on with the tea party movement.

As for not hijacking your page, I'm happy to post right there in the future. I just wanted to be respectful of the space you've carved out there. I know you invite discussion, but it's easy to just come across as an obnoxious "troll" on a page where the vast majority of commenters are of the same mind.

Thanks for your response.

At 10:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lance - Mathias here. I wanted to comment on your post not so much to disagree (as I seem to be prone, and although I agree with Johnny's response), but rather to get a bit more from you. While the theory behind what you write makes sense, you don't really follow through to practical application. I would like to get your take on: 1. how the racism you link to the tea party movement is manifesting itself specifically, and 2. what are your expectations from people on the right in practice? I'm all for being accepting of other traditions/religions/what-have-you, but should "white Christians" compromise or even abandon their principles to make way for conflicting ideas? When you say that you believe we feel threatened, I think that this is what you are referring to, but I could be wrong.
I think you wrote a really interesting piece here, and I agree with some of your theory - I would just like to know, in your view, what an acceptable, politically correct right-leaning white Christian with good intentions should look like?
Should we stop competing with one another because some have advantages born of privilege? Should we abandon laws that are fair in theory, but racist in practice? (could it be that the law is actually neutral, and that those who abuse it are racist?) Do we rewrite history so that our education can be politically correct? These are all things that are being done, and I'm not sure that they solve anything; they only weaken us as a country in the long run.
I would really like to hear some of your practical solutions.

At 11:22 AM, Blogger Lance said...

Good to hear from you, Mathias. Let's jump right in, shall we?

Examples of racist effects of tea party movement beliefs:

1. dismantling social welfare programs. The rugged, "bootstraps" individualism of the far right in this country says that we should fend for ourselves and not rely on the gov't to bail us out. But in a culture that incarcerates blacks at many times the rate of whites, attaches draconian penalties to crimes that are committed by blacks far more than whites (e.g., crack vs. powdered cocaine), and funds schools based on property tax, leaving urban blacks throughout the country to languish in under-funded schools, then telling a black person to just suck it up while *we* are enjoying the privileges of our whiteness is tantamount to active oppression.

And, far more subtly, what psychological message does "In God We Trust" on all our money send to people who don't believe in the Judeo-Christian God (and, really, we can drop the "Judeo" here), if not, "You are here, but you're not really one of us"? And what are we to make of the fact that, as a matter of state-determined curricula, we are taught that Columbus "discovered" America, while we aren't (or weren't when I was a boy) taught that the arrival of Europeans in the New World essentially destroyed more than one rich native culture (not to mention millions upon millions of actual people--some scholars estimate as much as 97% of the indigenous population over the next four centuries).

Then, of course, there's this pervasive sense that such a thing as "proper" English exists, and that what is proper just so happens to reflect the linguistic preferences of most white people in the U.S. Sure, there are different accents among whites, but grammatically most white dialects are pretty similar, without such "deviations" as dropping the "s" inflection on third person singular verbs (She walk to school), omitting linking verbs (She pretty), or adding a be verb to show repeating or continual action (She be working). This prejudice has a profoundly negative impact on blacks especially in the U.S. in terms of educational success and access, and the linguistic politics it bespeaks are part and parce of the "back to basics" rhetoric of education used by conservatives in the U.S.

As for whether we should stop competing, it seems perverse to me to think of culture as a competition at all--as a state of nature in which the fittest groups survive and others die out, which is what I take from your comment you believe to be the case. The fact that we have culture at all reflects our willingness to cooperate and, in the process, give up some of our individual freedoms, for the good of the larger group.

I'm out of time, so let me just say that if, by "rewrite history," you mean get rid of what's there, then no (though I'd be for reinterpreting much of it. "Manifest Destiny?" Really?). But if you mean "include attention to native american genocide, to the devastating effects of Jim Crow, to the cultural and material contributions of the Chinese in the development of the American west, etc., etc., then my answer is "yes."

Gotta go now. Thanks for reading.


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