What’s the difference between a Tea Party/Ku Klux Klan analogy from the left and a good ole Confederate flag waving from the right? Almost nothing. But both incidents prove that we can’t honestly talk about the ways in which the oppressive histories of racism, white supremacy and racialized violence continue to inform current institutions, polices, and politics in America.
This week, Florida Congressman Alan Grayson used a racially charged image of the KKK and a burning cross in a fundraising email to his supporters. Grayson’s email is an exhortation to his supporters designed to underscore the Tea Party’s role in the government shutdown and the ongoing obstructionism in Congress. But in the ad he violated a silent rule about race in 21st-century American politics. That rule is simple but socially destructive – there is no talking about race.
Public and political discourse established race as a third rail of sorts sometime in the early to mid 20th century. According to some scholars – see Michelle Alexander’s brilliant and timely The New Jim Crow – that third rail was racist language and ostensibly racist policies such as separate but equal. Americans in favor of (or silent about) racial hierarchies could still achieve political outcomes comparable to slavery or segregation — the powers that be just couldn’t say so out loud.
One unfortunate by-product of hiding racism behind the veil of encoded racist policy making (that isn’t explicitly racist), is that all conversations, dialogues, and/or concerns about race are treated in much the same way. We do not — and many Americans do not want to — talk about them.
Unfortunately America’s racial discourse fatigue allows for the emergence of an entity such as the Tea Party without the deeper understanding – the racialized cauldron within which Tea Party energy is cultivated. Jamelle Bouie astutely details some of this context here. And some of the ways in which these conversations remain over and past due were discussed in a Martin Bashir segment this week. This silence and fatigue also (and often) contribute to the shutdown of meaningful dialogues about race with respect to this president.
Critics on the right claim he’s so black that he could not possibly have been born here while some critics on the left claim he’s so anti-black (in policy and rhetoric) that he can’t possibly be authentically black. Note well here that there are plenty of black and brown people who consistently engage in constructive (and not so constructive) racial discourses; there are plenty of scholars, intellectuals, and journalists who write about and study race as a matter of course. Eventually the silence about race will be a minority proposition.
Any time we witness the emergence of a populous movement that is racially homogenous, we can pretty much assume that movement’s failure. And that goes for the Tea Party as well as Occupy Wall Street. Race has been used as a wedge to divide and diminish progressive coalitions throughout this nation’s entire history. But the demographics of the 21st century have the potential to undermine one of the oldest tricks in the political playbook – divide (by race) and exploit (by class).
If we set aside the physically violent aspects of the Tea Party-Klan analogy and consider the socio-economic, regional, demographic, and political goals of each of these movements, then the significance of the comparison, and the semblance of the two entities come painfully into view. The 21st-century iteration of the “Southern Strategy,” the racial and racist attacks aimed at the president, the states’ rights agenda, the codification of the so-called 47 percent (makers/takers), vehement and insistent minority opposition to the ACA, SNAP, and immigration reform; the loud and annoying clarion call for a previous America, and the overwhelming whiteness of their constituencies – this homogeneity, these tactics and positions all add up.
And while we might not be able to equate the Tea Party with the Klan, the fact that they don’t come right out and say that they are racist doesn’t mean that racism is not a part of their political DNA.
James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University and an MSNBC contributor. Follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson