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Keeping the Tempest Out of the Tea Pot

By Vincent Williams | Posted 7/21/2010

Resolution from the NAACP proclaiming you're racist, huh? Yeah, that's gotta sting. Oh, folks are putting on a brave face, and there are some shots being fired back, but best believe the Tea Party does not want the NAACP coming at its neck, because that invariably makes it The Bad Guy to an audience that it needs to get on its side. As someone not associated with the Tea Party (whatever that means) but sort of strangely fascinated with the movement, I have to say if the goal is to recruit more folks for the team, it hasn't done that well. Fair or not, image is everything. The Tea Party could and should do a better job changing its image in a couple of ways, and it can look to its enemy for a path towards that change.

First and foremost, no matter how many Michelle Malkins or Lloyd Marcuses are rolled out to speak, pictures don't lie: The vast majority of participants appear to be white, many are older, and a good number of them are from rural areas of the United States. In 2010, that's a shaky demographic if you're trying to bring folks in. When those old, rural white folks start screaming and foaming at the mouth over a black president . . . yeah, that's not a good look. Visually, that's one Confederate flag away from a Klan meeting. No one wants to be associated with something like that.

And, frankly, when those old, rural white folks start popping that "take back the country" and "good ol' days" stuff, it sounds like some encoded racism even if, granting them the benefit of the doubt, it isn't. I think this is where different reactions to our shared experiences get in the way, and, frankly, where conservatives in general have problems in recruiting blacks, Hispanics, women, progressive whites, Asians, and, uh, everyone who doesn't look just like most of them. It's the Happy Days thing: Your "good ol' days," whether Thomas Jefferson's or Ronald Reagan's, were bad ol' days for everyone else. They see Fonzie, but I see segregation. Invoking Reagan and Jefferson is not the way to build coalitions with others, but the Tea Party seems to be committed to this fetishization of the past.

Ironically, the Tea Party and the NAACP have this in common. Like I said in the beginning, an NAACP resolution against you has to sting, because it has historical heft. Fighting old country-ass white folks is what the NAACP does! It's been doing it for over 100 years and kicking ass at if for 60! Getting a handle on and successfully addressing the racial implications of the prison industrial complex is really hard. Dealing with the ongoing devastation of AIDS on the black community, specifically black women, is a complicated and nuanced quagmire. Even acknowledging the stagnation and decline of the black aesthetic that creates a situation where I can't go see fucking Fences on Broadway with two fucking Tony Award-winning performers without some of my people guffawing and yelling out "That's right, girl!" to Viola Davis like they're in a damn Madea play in a church basement is too much to ask. But the Tea Party? Please. There's a whole black civil rights infrastructure that was built on these kind of fights. Getting into an extended beef is only going to make the Tea Party movement look worse.

A second irony about the relationship between the two organizations is that the Tea Party could learn some lessons from the civil rights movement when it comes to the aforementioned issue of imagery. One of the first things to come out of a Tea Party supporter's mouth when a racist placard is brought up is that those people are outliers, or plants. Well, the NAACP and the history of organizations like SNCC and the SCLC demonstrate that you've got to control the people who show up and represent you. Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr., and a host of other civil rights vets have written fascinating accounts of the training that potential participants had to go through before they were allowed to protest. Even back then, they knew that the camera could be their greatest ally or their worst enemy. If the Tea Party is serious, they need to stop letting people just show up, because without discipline, you get wackos. I tend to take it seriously when dissenting groups allege someone planting agents to undermine their cause. COINTELPRO vigorously worked to destroy the civil rights movement through the use of undercover operatives, and there have been dozens of very illuminating books written on dealing with that ploy. Someone at TP headquarters needs to go read a copy of And the Walls Came Tumbling Down or Eyes on the Prize.

Look, I don't like the Tea Party. I think its members trade on the racial animus brought on by a black president and a quickly changing country. I call shenanigans on their "small tax, small government" ranting, because they didn't say a word for eight years under Bush. And, while I'm glad they react quickly to things like Mark Williams' racist blog posts, the bottom line is that they foster an environment where he feels comfortable writing them. I do not believe the Tea Party is interested in having a movement that reflects the way America looks in 2010. But I like rabble rousers, and I know what it's like to be unfairly painted with a brush that prejudices outsiders against you. Maybe I'm wrong about the Tea Partiers and their motivations. If I am, I know where they can go to get some help changing how I--and most Americans--feel about them.

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More from Vincent Williams

The Color of Cleo (6/23/2010)

Yelling (5/26/2010)

What's Beef? (4/28/2010)

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