Monday, August 02, 2010

The Tea Party and Black Americans

A Tea Party rally in Philadelphia to try to build some support among minorities set me to thinking about the movement's secure placement on one side of the divide between blacks and whites in America. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, the inclusion of Andrew Breitbart on the speakers' platform probably didn't help integrate the crowd of 300. Breibart's deceitfully edited video of U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod prompted her firing. Sherrod's story was far more interesting than Breitbart's attempt to demonstrate that it's really the blacks who are the racists in modern America.

Tea Party leaders were embarrassed by the mocking letter written by former Tea Party Express spokesman Mark Williams, one of the ugliest expressions of racial animosity I have seen in a very long time:
We Colored People 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.
It gets worse:
Perhaps the most racist point of all in the tea parties is their demand that government "stop raising our taxes." That is outrageous! How will we Colored People ever get a wide screen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn? Totally racist! The tea party expects coloreds to be productive members of society?
The furor was so intense that Williams was fired. He has since
removed the offensive letter from his blog, calling it "parody."

The divide between the Tea Party movement and blacks runs deeper than the ugly rantings of Breitbart and Williams and the distasteful signs comparing Obama to Hitler or Stalin that have popped up at Tea Party Rallies. The divide has its roots in very different views of the role of the federal government in our lives. Ronald Reagan famously declared that "government is the problem." But for African Americans, the federal government has been the solution when it comes achieving their rights as citizens.

Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset clearly describes the difference in his book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. Americans in general have always had an individualist streak when compared to Europeans. But as Lipset writes, African Americans have had a very different experience:
The treatment of blacks has been the foremost deviation from the American Creed throughout the history of the Republic.
Blacks have looked at American ideals very differently than whites, having been systematically denied the opportunity to live out these ideals for most of their history. Rugged individualism seems very different to those who lacked the opportunity to prosper from their own labor. Further, every meaningful step towards full citizenship has been imposed by the federal government. The Civil War was the ultimate test of federal authority. The Emancipation Proclamation, the 14th Amendment, Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act all required federal enforcement. Even if blowhards like Breitbart and Williams were to disappear, the Tea Party movement would still have a hard time attracting blacks to their libertarian, anti-government cause.

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