If Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson is going to prove to the public once and for all that the Tea Party movement isn’t racist, he’s got to work on his methods.
On Sunday, a group of California Tea Partiers celebrated the formation of a new South Central Tea Party chapter by holding a rally at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the NAACP is convening all week to discuss issues important to the black community.
Fueled by a desire to continue the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” slap fight in which the NAACP and the Tea Party movement have been engaged for the better part of a year, the conservative activists decided to take it to that ‘notha level.
Much the way Republicans trotted out Sarah Palin in hopes that women would vote their lady parts and not their consciences, this new strategy might best be summed up as: “We’re not racist! And if you don’t believe us, here’s Jonathan Q. Black Guy. Now, would this black guy support us if we were racist?”
Unfortunately for the Tea Party, the black guy they chose made about as much sense as Sarah Palin at a poetry slam.
I should have known the event would be filled with falsehoods, fake statistics, fear-mongering, and racist tropes when I walked up to the courtyard where the event was being held and saw multiple, professionally-made banners which read “South Bay Tea Party” (though the banner behind the podium loudly proclaimed South Central Tea Party).
For those unfamiliar with Southern California, South Bay is primarily white and wealthy. It encompasses Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Ranchos Palos Verdes, as well as Torrance and El Segundo, which could be considered lower to middle class. You got the feeling the group chose the “blackest” area of Los Angeles it could fathom, and decided to run with it.
The fear-mongering and factual inaccuracies were not confined to the signage.
Take William Owens Jr.
During his speech Owens, who wrote a book called Obama: Why Black America Should Have Doubts, claimed the NAACP served a purpose in its nascence, but that things are “all better now,” so any discussion of the disadvantages black Americans face on the basis of race is simply “making excuses.”
“When we see the abundance of opportunity that’s available to every breathing American in this country, when we see the abilities for individuals to be self-employed, or to work, or to get an education, what are the excuses?” Owens said. “There are no excuses. So what’s the fuss about? ….So why is it that we continue to hear the complaining and griping of human beings?”
That statement was met with a southern-style “Yes!” from a woman standing next to me — a white woman.
Rev. Peterson continued in the same vein. He played to the predominantly white crowd, while surrounded by a group of brown children. The kids were no older than 7 years old, and were holding misspelled signs that would have made Martin Luther King weep, calling the NAACP morally bankrupt and destructive of black families.
You know — because racism goes down better with a side of cute.
Peterson kicked off his anti-NAACP diatribe with a humdinger:
“The NAACP is no different than the KKK in that the KKK hung black Americans up by their physical bodies, but the NAACP steals their hearts and minds and souls,” he said. “And they kill black Americans by making black Americans or causing black Americans to hate their country, to hate what’s right, to depend on the government rather than depending on themselves.”
Peterson castigated the NAACP for holding a press conference asking for more black faces in the national news media while failing to do anything about the rate of out-of-wedlock births in the black community.
He excoriated the NAACP for “joining forces with Planned Parenthood” while doing nothing about the more than 1,500 black babies aborted every day. He made no mention of the wide range of women’s health and family planning services that comprise the bulk of what Planned Parenthood provides low-income women, including black women. But facts don’t matter when you’re preaching to the choir.
Notably, the Southern Baptist-style murmurs of agreement — Preach! Go ahead! — came from white members of the crowd that numbered around 100, including about 20 members of the media. Indeed, from my vantage point, I saw a sea of white faces, peppered with a few black attendees, most of whom seemed to be affiliated with Peterson’s B.O.N.D organization (Brotherhood Organization of A New Destiny, the conservative group he founded), including the “Speaker” who stood guard over the children, making sure they were sitting upright and that their signs were straight and angled perfectly towards the cameras. As I stood watching his speech, trying to maintain a neutral expression on my face, I glanced around me and saw other black folks struggling to do the same. I would meet their eyes and in an instant, we would telepathically exchange the same message: “Can you believe this nonsense?” It was surreal, it was sad, and it made me angry.
By the time I returned my attention to Mr. Patterson, he had dialed up his rhetoric. He began to talk about being called names, and joked about being called a “coon” and not knowing what a “coon” was. He even asked the crowd “What’s a coon?” — much to the delight of some in the crowd. Minutes later, Patterson joked about being called “ni**er,” even bastardizing comedian and social activist Dick Gregory’s commentary on the word in his 1964 book Ni**er by quipping that he had been called ‘ni**er” so many times, he was thinking about changing his name to “Jesse Ni**er Patterson.”
Later, after another speaker, Jennifer Morse of the traditional marriage advocacy organization the Ruth Institute condemned New York Republicans for voting for marriage equality, Patterson took to the podium again for more jokes at the expense of the civil rights movement and black history in America. He joked that he had grown up on a plantation in Alabama, and that he remembered Jim Crow; he remembered having to sit in the “Blacks Only” section of a movie theater.
At this solemn talk of the dark times, the crowd grew silent. But Patterson reminded the crowd that he was their guy! See, he didn’t mind having to sit in the blacks only section, because he had a better view from the balcony! Relieved, the white rally attendees laughed and laughed — finally a black guy was speaking their language and making them feel comfortable about this nasty race business.
Patterson went on to talk about picking cotton — he even invited the crowd to come with him to Alabama sometime to pick cotton, too — and about growing up and never hearing his father or grandfather say black people should hate white Americans. (At that point I thought, I’ve never met a black person whose father or grandfather taught them to hate white Americans, but that’s just me.)
He then summed up the civil rights movement in the most stunningly factually inaccurate manner possible:
“50 years ago,” Patterson said, “starting with the civil rights movement, they came in and said to black Americans that you’re being discriminated against, this country’s against you, but we’re going to help you…you need the government; the government’s going to help you, but you can’t have a father in the home, and so black Americans said yes to that, and they took the fathers out of the homes and the government became the daddy of the families…”
When Patterson got to Jesse Jackson, and, predictably, the crowd began to boo, I felt the urge to flee. Standing in that crowd of mostly white faces, listening to a black man talk about an entire group of people — his people — as if they were not worthy of the truth, made my stomach turn.
And watching those children sit there with their hate-filled signs made me want to call child services.
Watching a mainly white crowd, who had certainly convinced themselves that they really cared about what was going on in the black community, waving signs about enforcing immigration laws in order to increase black employment made me cringe.
And trying to keep my face permanently frozen with a smile was starting to make my face hurt.
Determined to speak to at least one rally attendee who didn’t seem to be directly affiliated with Patterson, I made my way over to a cheerful looking black woman in a biker vest, and asked her where she was from and what had brought her to the rally. What she told me immediately deflated all the anger I felt towards Patterson and everyone attending the rally.
She was from the Riverside (which, although more diverse and not as wealthy as South Bay, still cannot conceivably be called “South Central.”) She spoke about moving to California in 1975 full of hope and optimism, and seeing her community decimated by crime, cronyism and a failed education system. What she was saying made sense. She had the same concerns that down-and-out Americans on the left have. She just bought the wrong message.
She wasn’t a woman at whom I could be angry. She wasn’t angry! She was disappointed and felt let down by her country. I felt that I could fix her. I wanted to drag her to the nearest bar, sit down with a nice bottle of single malt between us, and talk politics. Real politics. Talk to her about why her preferred candidates, Rick Perry and Sarah Palin will never have her interests, or the interests of her family at heart. Explain to her what liberalism is and how it differs from conservatism. Point out Democratic achievements over the years and compare them with Republican achievements.
I really felt that I could reach her, if given the chance.
“Next time,” I thought as the bartender brought me my beer.