NAACP takes on Tea Party's 'racist element'

OPINION - The willingness of some tea party protesters to use racism and the unwillingness of many to denounce them ushers in a new culture of accepting racial bias...

I shrugged when I first learned that the NAACP had denounced elements of the tea party movement as “racist.” The venerable civil rights organization seems a little slow with this critique given that nearly every progressive print publication, online blog, and casual commentator has pointed out the troubling racial images and discourse in many tea party protests for well over a year now.

I have written about acts of tea party racism and the limitations inherent in using the racist label for discussing tea party opposition to policies like health care reform. Still, I was intrigued enough by the NAACP’s actions this week to spend a little time talking with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC’s Countdown on Monday night.

Olbermann and I spent most of our time discussing the meaning of racism and whether tea party activists are sincere when they assert they do not see racism as a motivating force in their protests.

You can watch that conversation here:
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Because television spots are invariably too brief for complex historical discussion I did not have a chance to talk with Olbermann about one other element of this story that I think is worth noting- the historical legacy of the NAACP with respect to this denunciation of elements of the tea party.

In recent decades I have felt disappointed by the NAACP’s focus on symbolic and rhetorical acts of racial inequality rather than on providing substantive responses to the structural inequities facing poor and black communities. I was prepared to criticize this current action as similarly misplaced energy. But I reconsidered when I remembered that the NAACP was founded just over 100 years ago in circumstances that resonate with some of the racial dynamics currently at work in American politics.

Historian Blair L.M. Kelley’s terrific new book Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson tells a lost story about the early years of the 20th century when Southern states imposed increasingly repressive Jim Crow laws: disfranchising black voters, segregating black citizens, silencing black journalists, and crushing black opposition to second class citizenship.

In response to the narrowing opportunities and escalating violence in the South, tens of thousands of African-Americans migrated to northern states in search of greater freedom and opportunities. This great migration stoked the latent racial anxieties and animosity in the North, culminating in 1908 in Springfield, Illinois-the home of Lincoln and the site where President Obama announced his bid for the White House. In Springfield, a mob of whites beat and lynched black men, drove thousands of black citizens from their homes and destroyed property in a racial motivated riot.

Patricia Sullivan’s Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement reminds us that the NAACP was founded in the wake of this 1908 riot as an interracial organization committed to denouncing such violence and changing the social, political and legal climate that allowed such violence to occur.

Two critical African-American thinkers and activists were present at the NAACP’s initiation: W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells. Both were intellectuals committed to using reasoned argument and empirical evidence as weapons against racial violence. Well’s “A Red Record” collected the first systematic evidence on lynching and effectively undermined the widely accepted myth that lynchings were a response of black male sexual crimes. Instead, her work showed that lynching was a means of racist social control deployed against black Americans who displayed economic or personal independence. Du Bois produced decades of systematic social scientific research asserting that black people were not subhuman beasts, but rather complex human beings with souls worthy of first class citizenship. Both Wells and Du Bois used the press and public commentary as the primary vehicle for disseminating their ideas.

In short, the NAACP is rooted in a history that takes ideas and public discourse seriously. The race riots of 1908 were not random acts. They emerged from a culture that accepted racial exclusion and white supremacy as the organizing principles of social and political life. From its earliest days the NAACP has been as interested in dismantling these ideas as it has been in challenging the institutions that emerge from them.

It would be foolish to assert that 2010 is equivalent to 1908 (almost as ridiculous as calling NBA players slaves) but there are important resonances between these historical moments. Recent tea party supported laws in Arizona smack of the same racism and segregationist impulses that undergirded Jim Crow. The sense of economic competition that prompted Northern race riots is inherent in the tax anxiety expressed by many tea party activists. The willingness of some tea party protesters to use racist images and language and the unwillingness of so many to denounce such actions seems to usher in a new culture of accepting racial bias.

In this context perhaps it is only fitting that the NAACP take up its historical leadership role in denouncing racism in the public sphere.