Friday, October 18, 2013

Tea Party Racism

Over on Facebook I got drawn into a discussion/argument/throwdown between two folks I highly respect.  The subject was, nominally, Tea Party racism, and the essentials of the conversation is that one of the combatants called Tea Party members racist based on an image of a Confederate Flag from a protest last week at the White House.  The other combatant, who identifies with the Tea Party cause (though I don’t know if he’s actually a member of any Tea Party group), took it personally and the “usual” fireworks ensued.

I waded in with a well reasoned mini-essay attempting to put the severe reaction of the first combatant in perspective for the second, hoping since I know these men to generally be men of integrity, that we might actually come to an understanding.  Combatant number 2 challenged me to come up with some facts – not blog posts, not retread photos, but facts – to buttress my claims.  So being a scientist for whom the call to display facts in an emotional argument is like sweet nectar to a bee, I jumped in.

But before I get to the research – which I think is important – I have to acknowledge that this argument, like so much in the current political sphere – is not about demonstrable facts.  Its about fears – fear of economic loss, fear of loss of social standing or place, fear of unknown or “other” cultures or socio-economic groups.  And its about an America that is changing so fast that in my life time we’ve gone from one or two rotary phones attached to the wall in each house to handheld “phones” that have more computing power then the Lunar Lander.  That change, along with demographic shifts in America that will render European Whites a minority in my life time (2050) is something that society has not really equipped its members to handle, nor have we acknowledged (particularly on the Left) the need for that equipping.  Instead we’ve leapt from TRS-80’s to Mac’s to Thinkpads to iPads to Google Glass without so much as turning to our fellow citizens and asking if they are still ok.  And like it or not, those fears and that change are now being exploited by those who want to resurrect and then fix in place a social and economic order that rests on some people have economic and social privilege built on the backs of economic serfs who are politically powerless.

Back to the data:

First up is research highlighted at  While they don’t give actual percentages in their coverage, the story does summarize what appears to be legitimate and recent social science research (sadly buried behind one of those infernal paywalls; emphasis in Italics mine):

New research published online in Race and Social Problems suggests the racial politics surrounding the tea party movement are highly nuanced. The researchers found no difference between the racial attitudes of the general white population and self-identified tea party members. Those who had a favorable view of the tea party {i.e. Tea Party Supports but not members}, on the other hand, were in fact more likely to admit to holding anti-black sentiments.
“Clearly, an African-American, mixed-race, liberal President may trigger symbolic racism and even racial stereotypes among the population at large,” Angie Maxwell from the University of Arkansas and Wayne Parent from Louisiana State University wrote in their study. But the evidence suggests the tea party wasn’t simply a racist reaction, though racists appear to be drawn to the movement.

The link between racial animus and favorable opinions of the tea party movement was clearer. Tea party supporters were more likely than the general white population to agree with statements like, “It is really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites” and disagree with statements like, “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”
These results coincide with previous research, which found tea party supporters held negative attitudes about African Americans, Hispanic Americans and LGBT Americans. Unlike past research, the present study found a difference between tea party supporters and actual tea party members.
“These distinctions demonstrate that the ‘subterranean agenda’ of the tea party may be different among members and among those who admire the general movement from afar,” Maxwell and Parent concluded. “What the tea party means to its members and what it represents to the large public may, in fact, not be the same thing.”

Because its behind that paywall, its hard to know how many people were surveyed, or if the percentage of Tea Party respondents mimics what has been reported to be Tea Party representation in th egeneral population.  These finding do suggest that there are, in fact, racist elements and ideas/views in the Tea Party universe.  They also suggest that Tea Party members (those actively participating in Tea Party groups as citizen activists) are probably not the problem.  So both of my combatant friends are right at least to some degree.

Searching for more numbers (!), I found this:

A striking difference over positive attitudes towards black people showed up in a multi-state poll, conducted in March 2010, by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexuality. Of those who strongly disapproved of the Tea Party, 55% agreed with the statement that black people were “VERY hard working.” Of those who strongly approved of the Tea Party, only 18% agreed with the statement that black people were “VERY hard working.” This 24-point difference pointed at Tea Party supporters as more likely to have negative feelings about the work ethic of black people. In fact, 68% of the Tea party “approvers” believed that if only they would try harder, then black people would be as well off as white people. That number fell by almost half, to 35%, when the “disapprovers” answered it.[245]

Further, almost three-quarters of Tea Party supporters (73%), told pollsters that government programs aimed at providing a social safety net for poor people actually encourages them to remain poor.[246] In fact, more than a bit of anecdotal evidence shows hostility and resentment towards the poor and the programs designed to help them. Hence, the signs such as one at an early St. Louis Tea Party that read: “Honk if I am paying your mortgage.” Not every Tea party supporter exhibited such feelings, certainly, but enough of it showed up in opinion polls to give credence to the description of Tea Parties as mean-spirited.
Similarly, both anecdotal evidence and poll data point to an irreconcilable gap between the president and Tea Partiers. More is at issue here than a simple disagreement of social policy and legislation. Indeed, a quarter of Tea Party supporters polled on the question admit that they think that the Obama “administration favors black people over whites.”[247] When asked whether or not Barack Obama understood the “needs and problems of people like you,” almost three-fourths of Tea Partiers (73%) said “no.” A similar number (75%) said he did not “share the values most Americans try to live by.”

Is all that of that Racist?  To an African American – definitely.  To a liberal white guy trained in statistics – more then likely.  Obviously not to some Tea Party folks.  But the University of Washington study cited above intrigued me.  Open access to data is a hallmark of quality science, so I followed the interwebs.  Sadly for my Tea Party supporting combatant, the data don’t look good (again, emphasis and clarifying additions in Italics are mine):

For instance, the Tea Party, the grassroots movement committed to reining in what they perceive as big government, and fiscal irresponsibility, also appear predisposed to intolerance. Approximately 45% of Whites either strongly or somewhat approve of the {Tea Party} movement. Of those, only 35% believe Blacks to be hardworking, only 45 % believe Blacks are intelligent, and only 41% think that Blacks are trustworthy. Perceptions of Latinos aren’t much different. While 54% of White Tea Party supporters believe Latinos to be hardworking, only 44% think them intelligent, and even fewer, 42% of Tea Party supporters believe Latinos to be trustworthy. When it comes to gays and lesbians, White Tea Party supporters also hold negative attitudes. Only 36% think gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to adopt children, and just 17% are in favor of same-sex marriage.

As this figure shows, even as we account for conservatism and partisanship, support for the Tea Party remains a valid predictor of racial resentment. We're not saying that ideology isn't important, because it is: as people become more conservative, it increases by 23 percent the chance that they're racially resentful. Also, Democrats are 15 percent less likely than Republicans to be racially resentful. Even so, support for the Tea Party makes one 25 percent more likely to be racially resentful than those who don't support the Tea Party.

Differences in {Tea Party website} content emerge when comparing the content from official tea party websites to the content from the National Review online, a mainstream conservative commentary.  Only 14 percent of the content from tea party websites focuses on big government or states rights, issues that are supposedly the ultimate concern of the tea party.  This is compared to 39 percent of the content examined from the National Review online.  19 percent of the content from tea party websites focuses on immigration, the gay community, race and personal attacks on Obama, compared to only 10 percent of the National Review’s online content.  10 percent of posts and articles on tea party websites focus on patriotism and taking back the country while less than 1 percent of the content from the National Review online have this focus.  Similarly, 36 percent of the content from the National Review online examines national security or foreign policy compared to only 2 percent of the content from tea party websites.  Content focusing on socialism, communism, and the current government ruining the country make up 24 percent of the content on tea party websites.  Again, this is in contrast to the National Review online where only 5 percent of the content is of this nature.  These findings suggest that the opinions and concerns of the tea party not only differ from mainstream America, but also from the conservative mainstream as well.

These data are striking for two important conclusions.  First, that Tea Party supporters (as opposed to members) are more likely the other conservatives to harbor racial resentment (which many conflate with racism); in turn conservatives are more likely then liberals to hold similar racial resentments.  Second, Tea Party groups focus nearly the same amount  of their web content on immigration, gays, race(including attacks on President Obama), socialism, communism, and the ruination of the country by the current government (43%b total) as the “mainstream” conservative press focuses on big government and states rights – which the Tea Party has claimed are its central issues.  It might be true that Tea Party web managers don’t seek content on these issues because National Review already does it; more likely the Tea Party needs to get straight what its issues really are. 

Finally in the data department, the Southern Poverty Law Center has published data (under the hilariously dark euphemism unsweet tea) that suggests the Tea Party’s almost all white membership may be a factor in its apparent racial resentment:

Just 1% of Tea Party supporters are black, the recent poll found, compared to more than 12% of the general population. Nine out of 10 disapproved of President Obama's job performance. Asked why they didn't like the president, 19% said they just don't like him, 11% suggested he is moving the country toward "socialism," and 9% said he is dishonest. Fifty-two percent thought too much has been made of black people's problems, about twice the proportion of all Americans.

Does all this make the ENTIRE Tea Party Racist?  No, it does not.  But these data do point out that the Tea Party has race relations problems and blindspots, some of which appear to be even bigger then the race relations blindspots that have been part of the conservative movement since it’s inception.  Sadly, that racial blindspot trace back to the pre-civil war South, an economy built on the owning (and abusing) of people of color:

The battle against the Constitution and later against an energetic federal government — the sort of nation-building especially envisioned by Washington and Hamilton – emanated, in part, from the fears of many Southern plantation owners that eventually the national political system would move to outlaw slavery and thus negate their massive investment in human bondage.
Their thinking was that the stronger the federal government became the more likely it would act to impose a national judgment against the South’s slavery. So, while the Southern argument was often couched in the rhetoric of “liberty,” i.e. the rights of states to set their own rules, the underlying point was the maintenance of slavery, the “liberty” to own black people.

{After the Civil War} However, the defeated South still balked at equal rights for blacks and invoked “states’ rights” to defend segregation during the Jim Crow era. White Southerners amassed enough political clout, especially within the Democratic Party – the successor to Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party – to fend off civil rights for blacks.
The battle over states’ rights was joined again in the 1950s when the federal government finally committed itself to enforcing the principle of “equal protection under the law” as prescribed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Many white Southerners were furious that their system of segregation was being dismantled by federal authority.
Southern rightists and many libertarians insisted that federal laws prohibiting denial of voting rights for blacks and outlawing segregation in public places were unconstitutional. But federal courts ruled that Congress was within its rights in banning such discrimination within the states.

Southern white anger was also reflected in the prevalence of the Confederate battle flag on pickup trucks and in store windows. Gradually, however, the American Right retreated from outright support of racial segregation. The growing public revulsion over the “Stars and Bars” as a symbol of racism also forced the Right to make a stylistic adjustment as well.

To this day, much of the American Right has refused to come to grips with the idea of non-whites holding U.S. citizenship. And, there is now a palpable fear that the demographics of democracy might finally eradicate white supremacy in the United States. It is that last-ditch fight for white dominance – as much as anything else – that is driving today’s Tea Party.

Interestingly, however, this fight is not just focused on racial dominance – it seems to be focused on modern Democrats (and perhaps their predecessors) who, as always, favor government solutions to intractable social and economic problems (or they used to anyway):

And that's a problem. It's a problem because too many observers mistakenly react to the tea party as if it's brand new, an organic and spontaneous response to something unique in the current political climate. But it's not. It's not a response to the recession or to health care reform or to some kind of spectacular new liberal overreach. It's what happens whenever a Democrat takes over the White House. When FDR was in office in the 1930s, conservative zealotry coalesced in the Liberty League. When JFK won the presidency in the '60s, the John Birch Society flourished. When Bill Clinton ended the Reagan Revolution in the '90s, talk radio erupted with the conspiracy theories of the Arkansas Project. And today, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, it's the tea party's turn.

Above all, though, is the recurring theme of creeping socialism and a federal government that's destroying our freedoms. In the '30s this took the form of rabid opposition to FDR's alphabet soup of new regulatory agencies. In the '60s it was John Birch Society founder Robert Welch's insistence that the threat of communism actually took second place to the "cancer of collectivism." Welch believed that overweening government had destroyed civilizations from Babylonia to 19th-century Europe, and he said his fight could be expressed in just five words: "Less government and more responsibility."

All of this points in one direction. The growth of the tea party movement isn't really due to the recession (in fact, polling evidence shows that tea partiers are generally better off and less affected by the recession than the population at large). It's not because Obama is black (white Democratic presidents got largely the same treatment). And it's not because Obama bailed out General Motors (so did George W. Bush). It's simpler. Ever since the 1930s, something very much like the tea party movement has fluoresced every time a Democrat wins the presidency, and the nature of the fluorescence always follows many of the same broad contours: a reverence for the Constitution, a supposedly spontaneous uprising of formerly nonpolitical middle-class activists, a preoccupation with socialism and the expanding tyranny of big government, a bitterness toward an underclass viewed as unwilling to work, and a weakness for outlandish conspiracy theories.

How did this happen? Partly it's a reflection of the long-term rightward shift of the Republican Party. Partly it's a product of the modern media environment: The Birchers were limited to mimeograph machines and PTA meetings to get the word out, while the tea partiers can rely on Fox News and Facebook. Beyond that, though, it's also a reflection of the mainstreaming of extremism. In 1961, Time exposed the John Birch Society to a national audience and condemned it as a "tiresome, comic-opera joke"; in 2009, it splashed Glenn Beck on the cover and called him "tireless, funny, self-deprecating...a gifted storyteller." And it's the same story in the political community: The Birchers were eventually drummed out of the conservative movement, but the tea partiers are almost universally welcomed today. "In the '60s," says Rick Perlstein, a historian of the American right, "you had someone like William F. Buckley pushing back against the Birchers. Today, when David Frum tries to play the same role, he's completely ostracized. There are just no countervailing forces in the Republican Party anymore." Unlike the Birchers, or even the Clinton conspiracy theorists, the tea partiers aren't a fringe part of the conservative movement. They are the conservative movement.

So where does that leave my combatants?  Clearly there is a racist element to support of the Tea Party even if individual Tea Party members are not, themselves racist.  That racist element is part of a play to use the Tea Party to drive the Republican Party to answer legitimate fears about change, about loss, about economic vitality with firm convictions and easy targets of blame, rather then answering with real nuance and substance.  It’s also clear this is both the culmination of four or five (or even six) decades of Republicans telling people government is the problem– with its power to redistribute income and create equality of opportunity that mocks private market places – have been the latest contribution in a long line of attempts in post-Civil War America to beat back opportunities for the poor, who are often historically and still people of color.  Tea Party members need to come to grips with this reality if they really want to have a place in future America.

Liberals too have to come to grips with something – Tea Party Members are sincere Americans who don’t like what they see happening to a country they love.  Tea Party tactics are many times likely to use or harken to racist tactics – the evidence does exist – and Tea Party supporters do appear to harbor racial resentments if not outright racism.  If we are to build the America we want, we have to confront that racism where and when we see it – regardless of which side of the aisle we sit on.

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