Conservatives are up in arms over a new book that says that President Obama sees the Tea Party as racist. See Fox News ("Obama Says Tea Party Is Racist In New Book"), along with slightly less inflammatory reactions from the Daily Caller and Red State.
The first thing to recognize is that Obama isn't "calling" the Tea Party racist. A private conversation of his is being reported, which is not the same thing as playing the race card. Second, Obama's viewpoint, which is broadly characterized, is (surprise!) more subtle than the headline suggest:
Obama, in his most candid moments, acknowledged that race was still a problem. In May 2010, he told guests at a private White House dinner that race was probably a key component in the rising opposition to his presidency from conservatives, especially right-wing activists in the anti-incumbent "Tea Party" movement that was then surging across the country. Many middle-class and working-class whites felt aggrieved and resentful that the federal government was helping other groups, including bankers, automakers, irresponsible people who had defaulted on their mortgages, and the poor, but wasn't helping them nearly enough, he said.
A guest suggested that when Tea Party activists said they wanted to "take back" their country, their real motivation was to stir up anger and anxiety at having a black president, and Obama didn't dispute the idea. He agreed that there was a "subterranean agenda" in the anti-Obama movement—a racially biased one—that was unfortunate. But he sadly conceded that there was little he could do about it.
His goal, he said, was to be as effective and empathetic a president as possible for all Americans. If he could accomplish that, it would advance racial progress for blacks more than anything else he could do.
Conservatives tend to be extraordinarily sensitive to accusations of racism, and they have developed a whole cottage industry of mocking and countering perceptions of racism within the Tea Party movement. To some extent, their sensitivity is understandable. I am sure that virtually all Tea Party members think of themselves as non- or anti-racists, committed to judging individuals on the content of their character. A few open racists have shown up at Tea Party rallies, and Tea Parties feel (again, understandably) that a tiny minority has been held up to taint all of them. They have gone out of their way to police rallies for racist signs. Moreover, the Tea party is organized around traditional right-wing public policy beliefs about government spending, and is almost completely uninterested in what we call "racial issues."
However, it is also demonstrably true that Tea Party sympathizers hold distinctly reactionary views on racial issues.
The evidence is overwhelming. A New York Times poll found that 52% of Tea Party sympathizers, as opposed to just 28% of Americans as a whole, believe "too much has been made of the problems facing black people." Another poll delved into this in greater depth:
Only 35 percent of those who strongly approve of the tea party agreed that blacks are hardworking, compared with 55 percent of those who strongly disapprove of the tea party. On whether blacks were intelligent, 45 percent of the tea-party supporters agreed, compared with 59 percent of the tea-party opponents. And on the issue of whether blacks were trustworthy, 41 percent of the tea-party supporters agreed, compared with 57 percent of the tea-party opponents.
And yet another poll showed that Tea Party sympathizers are far more likely than white Democrats to consider anti-white racism a greater problem than anti-black racism:
62 percent of whites who identified as Tea Party members, 56 percent of white Republicans, and even 53 percent of white independents said that today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Only 30 percent of white Democrats agreed with that statement.
Again, these views on racial issues are distinctive to the Tea Party, but they're not the Tea Party's main agenda. Tea Party rallies tend not to mention racial issues. But race is embedded into conservative politics in ways that conservatives don't want to acknowledge. Research has shown that white ethnocentric beliefs correlate strongly with opposition to means-tested spending programs. They correlate with higher support for universal programs. White people support programs they see as benefiting people like themselves. They oppose programs they see as benefiting people unlike themselves -- i.e., blacks.
This fact has shaped much of the debate over Obama's agenda. The conservative backlash to health care reform, in particular, took the form of staunchly defending Medicare against cuts which would redistribute benefits to undeserving beneficiaries. In general, conservatives like to tout the exceptional nature of anti-government beliefs in America without recognizing the role played by the legacy of slavery -- a huge source of opposition to more powerful government is the fear that such power will take from whites and give to blacks.
Again, you can hold right-wing beliefs about the role of government without having the slightest tinge of racial animosity. Racism and economic libertarianism are logically separable belief systems. But politically, they are closely intertwined. Unfortunately, the right's defensiveness on racial issues extends to erecting a conservative taboo around any recognition of this reality.