Ever since the Tea Party phenomenon gathered steam last spring, it has been plagued by charges of racism. Placards at rallies have depicted President Barack Obama as a witch doctor, denounced his supposed plans for "white slavery," and likened Congress to a slave owner and the taxpayer to a "n----r." Opponents have seized on these examples as proof that Tea Partiers are angry white folks who can't abide having a black president. Supporters, on the other hand, claim that the hateful signs are the work of a small fringe and that they unfairly malign a movement that simply seeks to rein in big government. In the absence of empirical evidence to support either characterization, the debate has essentially deadlocked.
Until now, that is. A new survey by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexuality offers fresh insight into the racial attitudes of Tea Party sympathizers. "The data suggests that people who are Tea Party supporters have a higher probability"—25 percent, to be exact—"of being racially resentful than those who are not Tea Party supporters," says Christopher Parker, who directed the study. "The Tea Party is not just about politics and size of government. The data suggests it may also be about race."
Surveyers asked respondents in California and a half dozen battleground states (like Michigan and Ohio) a series of questions that political scientists typically use to measure racial hostility. On each one, Tea Party backers expressed more resentment than the rest of the population, even when controlling for partisanship and ideology. When read the statement that "if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites," 73 percent of the movement's supporters agreed, while only 33 percent of people who disapproved of the Tea Party agreed. Asked if blacks should work their way up "without special favors," as the Irish, Italians, and other groups did, 88 percent of supporters agreed, compared to 56 percent of opponents. The study revealed that Tea Party enthusiasts were also more likely to have negative opinions of Latinos and immigrants.
These results are bolstered by a recent New York Times/CBS News surveyfinding that white Tea Party supporters were more likely to believe that "the Obama administration favors blacks over whites" and that "too much has been made of the problems facing black people." The survey also showed that Tea Party sympathizers are whiter, older, wealthier, and more well-educated than the average American. They're "just as likely to be employed, and more likely to describe their economic situation as very or fairly good," according to a summary of the poll.
If Tea Party supporters are doing relatively fine, what are they so riled up about? These studies suggest that, at least in part, it's race. The country that the Tea Partiers grew up in is irrevocably changing. Last month, new demographic data showed that minority births are on the verge of outpacing white births. By 2050, Hispanics are expected to account for more than a quarter of the American population. The Tea Partiers "feel a loss … like their status has been diminished," says David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which examines issues of race. "If you listen to [their] language, it's always about 'taking our country back.' But it's really not taking the country back as is. It's taking the country back"—as in time.
Bositis finds the movement's arguments about reckless federal spending unpersuasive. Why, he asks, weren't they up in arms when President George W. Bush launched two costly wars and created a new unfunded mandate with his Medicare prescription-drug plan? Why didn't they take to the streets when he converted a surplus into a massive deficit? "I don't like to be in a position where I'm characterizing people as being racially biased," says Bositis. "But when the shoe fits, what do you do?" Given modern societal norms, "they know they can't use any overtly racist language," he contends. "So they use coded language"—questioning the patriotism of the president or complaining about "socialist" schemes to redistribute wealth.
The Tea Partiers bridle at such accusations. "That is so pathetic," says Danita Kilcullen, the founder of Tea Party Fort Lauderdale. "Nobody in the Tea Party movement that I know is a racist." She notes that she attends a church with a black pastor, supports a black candidate (Allen West) in a local congressional race, and backs a Latino candidate (Marco Rubio) for U.S. Senate. When a protestor showed up at one of her group's rallies with a racist sign, she says, she personally kicked him off the corner. "We absolutely don't tolerate anything like that," says Kilcullen. "Nobody uses the N word. Nobody calls Mexicans all those ugly things that people say. Those are lies about us." She concedes that the movement doesn't draw many African-Americans. "But that's because all the black people voted for Obama," she says. "Well, not all—but 90 percent." (It was actually 95 percent.)
Some Tea Partiers blame the media for casting them as racists. "It really makes me mad," says Tom Fitzhugh, a Tea party activist in Tampa. "They have tried to portray us as a bunch of radical extremists." He considers Obama an abomination—possibly "the most radical-voting senator that ever was" and someone likely to "take us down the path of destruction." He believes the administration is intent on taking away his guns, trampling on states' rights, and opening the borders with Canada and Mexico. He has serious doubts that Obama was born in the U.S. and suspects that the president is a closet Muslim. (There's no evidence to support any of these accusations.) But his anger has nothing to do with race, he says. The real issue is that Obama is "taking down the Constitution and the way it's governed us for [hundreds of] years." All he wants, in other words, is to take his country back.