Less than 18 months into its existence, the Tea Party movement is in the throes of an identity crisis.
It began when the NAACP announced it would consider a resolution at its annual meeting that asked the Tea Party to condemn and expel its racist elements, calling them “a threat to democracy.”
Among other incidents, the resolution cited the frequent use of racial slurs at Tea Party rallies, threats made against some black congressmen as they were preparing to vote on the health-care reform bill and the use of “signs and posters intended to degrade people of color generally and President Barack Obama specifically.”
That was enough to get the temperatures rising of some Tea Party leaders, who certainly are all too willing to dish out criticism but never seem able to take it. But what happened next really lit their fuse.
First Lady Michelle Obama attended the NAACP’s convention in Kansas City, Mo., a day before the resolution vote to give the keynote address. Although she never waded into the Tea Party controversy during her remarks, her mere appearance was a signal to Tea Partiers of her tacit approval.
Time to cue Mark Williams, a spokesman for the Tea Party Express organization, to post an offensive blog item about the NAACP that seemed to confirm everything its resolution had alleged.
Written in the style of a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, the item stated, “Dear Mr. Lincoln, We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don’t cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!”
This, apparently, is what passes for satire by the angry, affluent white suburbanites who comprise most of the Tea Party. (Between 77 percent and 89 percent of their ranks, depending on the poll.) Jonathan Swift, they’re not.
It didn’t end there. Williams, who also is a conservative radio talk show host, wrote that the Tea Party couldn’t be racist because it purportedly opposes Wall Street bailouts, even though little of its efforts are aimed at curbing the abuses of Big Business.
“Bailouts are just big money welfare and isn’t that what we want all Coloreds to strive for?” Williams wrote.
Offensiveness is nothing new for Williams. In the past, he’s called Obama “the former Barry Soetoro, Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug turned anointed,” and referred to President Carter as a “creepy little faggot.”
Defending his blogging, Williams said later, “You’re dealing with people who are professional race-baiters, who make a very good living off this kind of thing. They make more money off of race than any slave trader ever. It’s time groups like the NAACP went to the trash heap of history where they belong with all the other vile racist groups that emerged in our history.”
All of this was too much for the Tea Party Federation and the Tea Party Nation, two other nationwide groups that lay claim to the Tea Party mantle. Both criticized Williams and severed ties with the Express.
The Nation probably isn’t in a good position to criticize anyone. It’s the same group that staged the first Tea Party convention in Nashville last winter. About 600 people paid $549 each to attend the event, which featured a speech by half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. That’s also where another speaker, former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), said Obama only was elected because “we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this country.”
The Federation describes itself as a “broad coalition of local and regional Tea Party groups” that was established “to create a unified message and media response.” After a conference call, the group asked the Express to repudiate Williams, which it refused to do.
For maximum effect, the Federation trotted out a black spokesman to appear on cable TV news networks.
The Express fired back with a catty press release: “The Tea Party Express with over 400,000 members is by far larger than the Tea Party Federation’s entire membership. Most rank-and-file Tea Party activists think we’re talking about Star Trek when we try to explain who the ‘Federation’ is. Given the absurdity of the actions by the ‘Federation,’ this is quite fitting, since their conduct is alien to our membership.”
It continued, “Circular firing squads of groups within the Tea Party movement attacking one another accomplish nothing, and on this issue the Tea Party Federation is wrong, and has both enabled and empowered the NAACP’s racist attacks on the Tea Party movement. Which is something they’ll realize when they beam themselves back from basecamp.”
Mike Wilson, the local Tea Party leader, sensed a good opportunity to raise cash for his campaign against Democratic incumbent Connie Pillich for the Ohio House 28th District seat. Wilson sent a mass e-mail stating he was offended by an editorial cartoon depicting a Tea Party member in a Ku Klux Klan robe that was circulated among House Democrats in Columbus.
“It’s clear from the sending of this offensive cartoon and the pressure put on the NAACP by Michelle Obama to condemn the Tea Party as racist that the Democrats plan to play the race card strongly in this election,” Wilson wrote. “As one of the more prominent Tea Party candidates in the country, I expect that our opponents will spend nearly $500,000 trying to paint me as a racist extremist.”
He then asks for a $25 donation.
Forget TV; the melodrama and bickering rivals anything found on Gossip Girl or The Real Housewives of New Jersey.
In one sense, Wilson is correct. It’s overstating the case to say all Tea Partiers are racist; they’re a disorganized bunch united only by anger and fear. But the movement only has itself to blame for condoning and ignoring the frequent racial hatred displayed at its rallies and uttered by some speakers.
If Democrats or progressives regularly held events with this type of invective, Republicans would rightfully pounce and paint them as extremists. But when Tea Partiers do it, the attitude is “Oh, well, what’s a little ugliness between friends?”
Despite the media hype, let’s remember the Tea Party — whichever sect you’re talking about — doesn’t represent most Americans. Polls have found that between 13 percent and 18 percent consider themselves part of the group.
That will be small consolation, though, if they’re the only ones who turn up at the polls in November.
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