The NAACP Is Right

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The NAACP on the Tea Party:


Today, NAACP delegates passed a resolution to condemn extremist elements within the Tea Party, calling on Tea Party leaders to repudiate those in their ranks who use racist language in their signs and speeches.
The reaction to this announcement has been swift and, in the main, negative. Next door, Dave Weigel, whose knowledge of the Tea Party is formidable, dismisses the resolution as "silliness" and "a stunt," and Chris Bodenner bemoans the fact that he ended Monday praising the Tea Party over the NAACP. If I'm reading this right, Michael Tomasky believes Obama should attack the NAACP because their resolution "heightens division." I think Michael McGough captures the  spirit of "sensible" criticism:

I see a fairness problem with the NAACP's resolution calling upon Tea Party leaders to "repudiate those in their ranks who use racist language in their signs and speeches." (The quote is from an NAACP press release which does not provide the text of the resolution.) Calling on an organization to denounce abhorrent behavior by some of its devotees may seem reasonable. But it implies that the extremists/bigots/bombers are a sufficiently significant component of the organization that such a gesture is necessary.
The NAACP's announcement initially struck me in much the same the way. But some hours of considering this have proven to me that my initial skepticism says more about the broad American narrative of race and racism, then it does about the justness of the NAACP's charge.

I think it's worth, first, considering the record of American racism, and then the record of the Tea Party and its allies. Racism tends to attract attention when it's flagrant and filled with invective. But like all bigotry, the most potent component of racism is frame-flipping--positioning the bigot as the actual victim. So the gay do not simply want to marry, they want to convert our children into sin. The Jews do not merely want to be left in peace, they actually are plotting world take-over. And the blacks are not actually victims of American power, but beneficiaries of the war against hard-working whites. This is a respectable, more sensible, bigotry, one that does not seek to name-call, preferring instead change the subject and strawman. Thus segregation wasn't necessary to keep the niggers in line, it was necessary to protect the honor of white women.

In that same vein we confront Glenn Beck, arguably the movement's greatest and most full-throated advocate in the media. Here is Glenn Beck discussing President Barack Obama's attempt to convene Officer Michael Crowley and Henry Louis Gates for a beer-summit:

This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture, I don't know what it is...I'm not saying he doesn't like white people, I'm saying he has a problem.

Here is Glenn Beck discussing President Barack Obama's push for health care reform:

Barack Obama is setting up universal healthcare, universal college, green jobs as stealth reparations. That way the victim status is maintained. And he also brings back back‑door reparations.
Perhaps one considers Glenn Beck merely a minor associate of the Tea Party. I don't agree, but fair enough. It's probably better to consider those politicians which the Tea Party has embraced, presumably, as embodying their values.

Steve King has long been an ally of the Tea Party and was the keynote speaker at the Tennessee Tea Party Coalition's Convention. Here isKing on President Barack Obama:

"When you look at this administration, I'm offended by Eric Holder and the president also, their posture. It looks like Eric Holder said that white people in America are cowards when it comes to race," said King. "And I don't know what the basis of that is but I'm not a coward when it comes to that and I'm happy to talk about these things and I think we should. But the president has demonstrated that he has a default mechanism in him that breaks down the side of race - on the side that favors the black person."

I think it's worth acknowledging that the Colorado Tea Party canceled an appearance with King after this statement. And perhaps this is still too much distance, in which case it's worth looking at the events which took place at the Tea Party's own convention. The Tea Party selected Tom Tancredo, a politician who once called Miami "a third world country," to give an opening night speech. Tancredo, true to form, claimed that Obama was elected "because we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country," and went on to assert that..

...people who could not even spell the word 'vote', or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House. His name is Barack Hussein Obama.

Tancredo was roundly cheered, and afterward, lauded by Tea Party Nation organizer Judson Phillips, for giving "a fantastic speech."

Given this record, I am at a loss to understand the criticism directed at the NAACP. This is a Civil Right organization who's taken as part of its mission opposing any attempt to inject racism into American politics. When the Tea Party's media advocates, when the politicians the movement embraces, when the speakers at its conventions do precisely that, and the NAACP responds by "calling on Tea Party leaders to repudiate those in their ranks who use racist language in their signs and speeches," I have trouble finding the actual problem.

Given my own initial skepticism, I'm left with the notion that many of us that like to consider ourselves sober-minded and fair, have forgotten the history of this country we love. No matter. I cannot speak for others, but I was immediately jogged back to reality by the Tea Party's response:

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...

This is not some deluded crazy, who has infiltrated the Tea Party with an offensive sign. This is the national spokesman for the Tea Party Express claiming that one of the authors of the 20th century American revolution is actually a "vile racist" organization. This is who they are--America's far right-wing, speaking with all the emboldened ignorance that is fast becoming their stock in trade. I have had, and continue to have, my criticism of the NAACP. But the notion that they are somehow being unfair to the Tea Party, that President Obama should denounce the NAACP, says a lot about our desire to forget and their insistence that we do no such thing.


I have long been one to question the NAACP's relevance. Moments like these remind me that I have been very wrong. It is not my style to spend my days attempting to enlighten or embarrass the Tea Party. But someone has to do it. Someone has to say, "It's not OK." That is not work for "sensible" people. But it's work that has to be done. Someone must hold the line.

UPDATE: Changed headline to better reflect this post. Also fixt for botching Chris and Dave's last names. My bad guys.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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