JOHN MCWHORTER JULY 16, 2010
Much to my surprise, I’m with Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP on this Tea Party business this week.
Jealous has called on the Tea Partiers to officially disavow the racists, such as there are, in the movement. I am pleased to see that he has been on good behavior—no melodrama, no exaggeration, no pretending it’s 1962 (which I read as one more sign that that style of race discussion is on the ropes). Complementing his call for the Tea Partiers to be explicit, he has been explicit in saying—admitting! This really is something special, folks—that the Tea Partiers themselves are not a racist body.
If he’s going to actually admit that in public, then it’s a fair trade for the Tea Partiers to speak up about racism in their organization.
My guess is that they don’t think the issue of possible racism among them is a big deal. I get where they’re coming from. Are there actual bigots among them? We can assume so, just as we know that there are people who cheat on their taxes. But is the movement fundamentally motivated by anger that Barack Obama is black? I don’t see it.
Those who disagree point to the tacky T-shirt slogans (“There are lions in Africa and there’s a lyin’ African in the White House”) or the epithets reportedly hurled at John Lewis and comrades after the health care bill passed.
But I do not classify this stuff as the “Racism” we are to be concerned with. This kind of thing comes down to a particular question: will insult ever be polite? Or, are we really thinking that there could be a society where race never figures in an insult hurled at a black person?
The irony is that as long as we maintain a culture of sounding aggrieved whenever someone says or does something tacky, we are preserving such actions as opportunity for prime insult – that is, it’s what insults are intended for, to injure. I discussed this some months ago here.
In any case, that’s just me. Elsewhere, it is considered the informed view of the Tea Partiers to see them as acting out in a disguised protest against there being a black President. The proper way to start the discussion is to say that there is “an element” of racism—but since racism is considered as abhorrent as pedophilia, even that is enough, rather like there being an “element” of arsenic in one’s beer.
And people who think this way need a lesson. The idea has been first that America needed not to segregate people; next came that America needs not to be racist in general; and now the idea is that America needs to learn to harbor no negative sentiments about black people even in its heart of hearts. That’s a tough one, but lots of people smarter than me seem to think it’s a worthy quest.
Well, here’s a lesson America also needs to learn, especially those who read a T-shirt and think it’s their responsibility to think of it as a direct descendant of what got John Lewis’ head cracked on the Pettus Bridge in Selma. Maybe this lesson will be as tough a sell as teaching Americans to have no racist sentiments of any kind, ever—but it’s equally worthy of proposal.
Lesson: deep anger at a black person can occur without the root of it being a hatred of black people. Corollary lesson: when said anger is harbored by groups, chance will dictate that some individuals within it will be less decorous than most, and that they will “Go there”—expressing their anger in disrespect, which when aimed at a black person, will logically entail phraseology singling out color. Sometimes the tackiest among them will pop off with, yes, the one that starts with n.
Once it was clear Obama would be elected, I knew that once the honeymoon was over, a hot new issue would be explorations as whether criticisms of Obama were “racial,” and here we are. First off was the Joe Wilson eruption ("You Lie!"), and now the Tea Partiers.
So, Tea Partiers—if you’re really so concerned about the state of the country as a whole, take a time out and help us learn a lesson. Condemn racism and its expressions in your midst. Try this: likely there will be fewer of the T-shirts and envelope-pushing aspersions, which will render your message that much more effective with the media.
In the meantime, you will contribute to the nationwide sea change in the race discussion that has the NAACP approaching this issue so temperately in the first place. This is the most constructive, untheatrical statement that has come from the NAACP in eons—it’s worthy of what they were about a hundred years ago. Let’s go with it.