Cose: The Debate About the Tea Party and Racism

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NAACP President Ben Jealous looks at the modern Tea Party movement and sees the shadow of the White Citizens' Council, that gentile breed of southerners, rife with respectability, that served as the white-glove wing of the Ku Klux Klan. The council cynically practiced "this sort of hide-the-ball-beneath-the-sheet behavior ... when they used to say, 'We're not the Klan. We're respectable citizens who are concerned about states' rights and taxes.' And we're saying we're not going to tolerate that again," said Jealous, during an interview last Tuesday, just after the NAACP unanimously passed a resolution blasting the Tea Party for tolerating racism in its ranks.

Tea Partiers, predictably, were incensed. Even before the formal vote at the NAACP's annual convention in Kansas City, Mo., the St. Louis Tea Party put out its own resolution. That measure condemned the NAACP for "lowering itself to the dishonorable position of a partisan political attack dog" and demanded the organization withdraw its "bigoted, false, and inflammatory resolution."

Bill Hennessy, a spokesman for the St. Louis Tea Party, acknowledged that racist kooks might sometimes show up at Tea Party events. "We've tossed them out," he told me. "You can attract an idiot anywhere you happen to go, especially if you have an audience around." But he rejected the notion that anything about the Tea Party's message draws such people: "The fact that there are a whole lot of people with some political purpose gathered on a spot is, I would say, what attracts them." He also rejected Jealous's White Citizens' Council comparison: "He's absolutely wrong. And, you know what, he knows better. He's not just wrong; he's lying."

Deneen Borelli, a Tea Party activist from Project 21, a Washington-based black-conservative public-policy group, agreed with Hennessy. "The Tea Party movement does not condone any racist activities whatsoever," she told me, despite the attempts of the "other side" to portray the movement as a "racist and redneck group."

Jealous isn't buying any of it. "We have watched as they have sent protesters to the halls of Congress who have called civil-rights heroes, like John Lewis, the N word and Barney Frank the F word. We have watched as groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, a lineal descendant of the White Citizens' Council ... celebrate the involvement of their members in the Tea Party ... When [former Ku Klux Klan leader] David Duke sees the Tea Party go by, he assumes that that's his parade." Tea Party leaders, he said, must distance themselves from such people and from such groups. "We don't oppose the continued existence of the Tea Party ... We simply object to their continued tolerance of racists ... and white supremacists within their organization."

When I asked Hennessy why it was so difficult to condemn, say, the Council of Conservative Citizens, which blatantly promotes itself as a white-people's group, he responded, "I don't know enough about them to condemn the organization. I can tell you that I do know enough about them—it bothers me enough—that I won't have anything to do with them."

Borelli argued that the Tea Party was simply too diffuse for it to repudiate loathsome organizations that glommed onto the party: "There is no one single group that speaks for the entire Tea Party movement. It's a grassroots effort ... So you're not going to get one press release from one certain group that's going to say x,y,z."

Her answer is not particularly satisfying, even if you don't believe—and I don't—that the Tea Party belongs in the same category as the White Citizens' Council. The council, after all, waged war on blacks, turning a blind eye to (and sometimes actively supporting) the most brutal acts imaginable. That is not what the Tea Party does. And to condemn the so-called movement for the craziness of some of its more idiotic fans is less than fair. But Tea Party leaders do, indeed, seem much more interested in attacking perceived enemies on the left than in taking on bigoted fringe groups aligned with them—not because Tea Partiers are racist, but because they are not particularly inclined to alienate allies. And when you have a movement fueled largely by overheated rhetoric about taking the country back, it's not exactly surprising that many of your supporters are people who believe civil-rights legislation was a mistake, deem the president an illegal immigrant, and pine for an idealized America that used to be.

The Tea Party, of course, cannot bring the old America back—no more than it can bring back the unsettled prairie, the kerosene lamp, or teenagers blissfully unaware of sex. That is something even those on the most radical fringe of their supposed movement ultimately will have to come to terms with, whether the Tea Party ever gets around to denouncing them or not.