Race and the tea-baggers

David Brooks

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I go running several times a week. My favorite route, because it’s so flat, is from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol and back. I was there last Saturday and found myself plodding through tens of thousands of anti-government “tea party” protesters.They were carrying “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, “End the Fed” placards and signs condemning big government, Barack Obama, socialist health care and various elite institutions.Then, as I got to where the Smithsonian museums start, I came across another rally, the Black Family Reunion Celebration. Several thousand people had gathered to celebrate African-American culture. I noticed that the mostly white tea party protesters were mingling in with the mostly black family reunion celebrants. The tea party people were buying lunch from the family reunion food stands. They had joined the audience of a rap concert.

I read this in the New York Times the other day, and as I often am with David Brooks I was both somewhat in agreement and dismayed by the oversimplification.

But race is an issue that everyone oversimplifies quite a bit, it seems. Some of what Brooks is saying is true: there is a populist/educated divide in America. A lot of other things than race play into it–education, obviously, but also the de-industrialization of the country, insane pay for folks whose contributions are questionable, the panoply of social changes we’ve seen since the 1960s, etc., etc. In fact, I come from a place where this conflict was obvious every day of the week–my family was working class, a lot of my relatives did poorly in school and worked manual labor positions. But my father was a very intelligent man and a voracious autodidact. The contrast and conflict between the values and expectations of my father and those of many of the people around us was one of the central experiences of my childhood.
There’s a lot that goes into the frustration that these folks feel, but to say that race doesn’t play a role is absolutely wrong.
Populism itself has a pretty ugly history when it comes to race (the modern Ku Klux Klan was part of a populist rising in the early part of the twentieth century). While, yes, the current generation of populist rabble aren’t Ku Klux Klanners, and do have far more comfort with blacks than their grandparents may have had, the fact that Obama is black is without question one of the things that makes the country seem “not theirs anymore.”
Every single one of their issues either a) is delusional or b) was also true under Bush. Can it be a coincidence that the real engine beneath the populist rising is immigration, and if you scratch the surface there you find that the fear is not just that immigrant will pull their wages down or displace them, but pure xenophobia.
And that xenophobia, even when it is completely in its “fear of sophisticates” (and it isn’t for most of these people) mode is only a small step away from “fear of anyone not white and Middle American.”
These people are not too stupid to know the difference between, say, Al Qaida and Iraq. The problem is they want theri conflicts to be ethnic issues. Ethnic conflict is easy to resolve: kill the other. And that, in short, is what is behind all the threatening posturing at these demos.
Appreciation of rap and ability to mingle with blacks notwithstanding, these folks are intense xenophobes, and where that xeno starts is a fluid line. And it certainly begins before we get to an articulate black man leading the country.

5 thoughts on “Race and the tea-baggers

  1. With half of my family American and the other half Canadian/British/French, I come across our various fears in many guises (including to a greater and lesser extent xenophobia). It is my experience that the fear is usually directed towards the hot button issues and the personalities that represent them from all sides. So I agree with you that fear is a major motivator.

    What I find ironic about the race card behind Wilson's “You lie!” is that my American relatives honestly don't get the notion that such a statement, if aimed at a very deserving Dubbya, would have been understood by these same people to be an insult to the office of the president and without any thought whatsoever to the president's race. But in spite of my point that to do so against Obama is immediately understood by them to be almost a heroic attack against a powerful man who threatens the Constitution, they fail to appreciate the racial undertone that in fact drives different kind of response to a similar action. So to my way of thinking, the comment was far more a racist one than simply xenophobic. And if not overtly stated by Wilson as a racial attack, then certainly done covertly… even if not understood by many to be such; after all, he did not finish the statement with 'boy' or make any other racial comment. Yet racism is the driving factor there.

    The same covert racial influence – if you will please excuse the pun – continues to 'colour' the tea-bagger's actions. If Bush had done the same actions as Obama is accused of doing to undermining the Constitution (and he did far worse), the response by these same folk would have been significantly different, aimed more at examining how good or bad the policy was (why do these same folk willing to attend tea-bagger parties so easily forgive and forget the 800Bn-please-take-this-money-without-any-plan-for-repayment instituted by Bush & Co., the undermining of personal liberty by means of the Patriot Act, the infringement on individual privacy by communication companies colluding with government for unsupervised access, and so on, if their intention is really to honour and protect the Constitution?) even if under the partisan banner. Because of these striking differences in responses to similar actions by the tea-baggers, I don't buy the xenophobia angle to explain the response to Obama; I think it is far more a racially motivated response based on a continuation to further widen the partisanship gap, a negative political strategy so successfully implemented and used by the previous administration and still used by senior republican strategists and their various talking heads.

    I recognize that racism is a part of xenophobia but I think the use of the term waters down what is a racially motivated divide. After all, we all fear, and we all attribute. Labeling the hostile response to Obama and his administration's policies with such a title does too little to identify the disagreeable and distasteful bias at the heart of the tea-bagger's motivation.

  2. Thanks for supplying all the argumentative detail I was to lazy to write!

    I am glad, in spite of all the evidence, that Obama plays the race issue down, but I am stupefied that anyone who has lived through the last 10 years can fail to see the contrast between populist quiescence through a long period of very free spending and significant erosion of freedom, and delusional populist apoplexy now.

    There is no real explanation for this–the campaign rumormongers, the birthers the tea baggers and the whole nutty lot–without recognizing that these folks are energized by fear of a sophisticated BLACK president, and this wouldn't have happened if Al Gore had won in 2008.

  3. Oran,

    You assert contrarian views and arguments in the face of unexamined assumptions about the world, yet you make comments on my blog based upon your own unexamined assumptions of my writings. Evidently you see only that which supports your own narrow opinions and ignore the rest.

    Your comments on my blog entitled, “An Open Letter To President Obama” by Lou Pritchett are evidence of your careless and sloppy approach.

    It is clear from my blog that I am not the author of the writing, yet you attack me by name in your diatribe. Did you even bother to read my blog? If so, there is no evidence of it in your writing.

    Are you as slipshod in examining your own views which you so proudly and arrogantly put forth?

    If you really took the time to read my writings you would see that I am no more biased against Obama any more than Bush. But then this fact would not fit into your fixated hatreds and prejudices would it?

    Given your sophomoric approach to open discussion and dialog, I will not be wasting more of my time on your originations.

  4. Daniel:

    You posted Pritchett's letter with no commentary at all. I took that as an endorsement. (Available here: http://thornappleriver.wordpress.com/2009/08/23/open-letter-to-president-obama/ , for the intersted.)

    Have *you* read that letter? It is frankly moronic. How about some real evidence from real sources for any of the assertions in that letter?, showing how Obama is somehow worthy of “fear.” Not opposition, but “fear.”

    Fear seems to be what you are dealing in right now: let's see you justify it as something other than bigotry.

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