Blowing off Tea Baggers as Racist Misses the Point

The new political article of faith is that tea party protesters are blatant or closet racists. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, Meghan McCain, and Captain Marvel Comics' Captain America and his black sidekick Falcon, are the latest to poke fun at and pick a fight with the tea baggers over their alleged serial racism. Although it's worth noting, Marvel Comics thought twice about it and promptly apologized for the slam.

It's true that the very thought of a black man in the White House turns the stomachs of many tea baggers and they make no bones about that. The cameras caught a few ranting at the tea party convention -- their signs, banners, Confederate flags, Texas Lone Star flags, and race-baiting scrawls on signs at their rallies are ample evidence of that. They deserve to be mocked and dismissed as the loony, bigoted, paranoid cranks they are. The pack of conservative blogs, talk shows and Web sites that have made Obama-bashing a lucrative industry with their racist slurs have been wildly effective in working up some tea party protesters into a fever pitch against Obama.

But the race rap against the tea baggers misses the point -- why they've roared on the scene seemingly from nowhere, caught the fancy of the public and the media, triggered a nervous twitch among Democrats, and sent terror through the GOP mainstream.

Nearly two decades ago, the GOP found that the volatile mix of big government and economics could whip frustrated, rebellious, angry whites (and more than a few non-whites) into a tizzy far better than crude race baiting. Many blue-collar white males were losing ground to minorities and women in the workplace, schools, and in society. The trend toward white male poverty and alienation became more evident in the early 1980s when nearly 10 million Americans were added to the poverty rolls, more than half from white, male-headed families. Two decades later, the number of white men in poverty has continued to expand.

The target of their anger was big government that tilted unfairly in spending priorities toward social programs that benefited minorities at the expense of hard-working whites. This is exactly how hate groups, anti-Obama Web sites and bloggers, and radio talk jocks craft the reason for the anger and alienation that many white males feel toward health care and, by extension, Obama. This translates to even more fear, rage and distrust of big government. The vintage blends of anti-government politics and calls defending personal freedom were the neo-libertarian war cries heard at the Conservative Political Action Conference and the tea party convention. Protests over big government dwarfed the subtle and overt race-baiting appeals that were seen and heard at both conventions.

Tea baggers rail at Obama, the Democrats, big government, the elites, and Wall Street. Yet, they also grouse about abortion, family values, gay rights, and tax cuts -- not race.

Rightwing populism, with its mix of xenophobia, loath of government as too liberal, too tax-and-spend, and too permissive, and a killer of personal freedom has been the engine that powered Reagan and Bush White House wins. Scores of GOP governors, senators and members of congress have used wedge issues to win office and maintain political dominance. The GOP grassroots brand of populism has stirred millions operating outside the confines of the mainstream Republican Party. In 2008, many of these voters stayed home. Even Sarah Palin wasn't enough to budge them. Their defection was more a personal and visceral reaction to the bumbles of George W. Bush than a radical and permanent sea change in overall white voter sentiment. They were ripe for the tea party movement -- or any movement that keyed their anger and frustration into action.

The supposed proof that the tea party movement is loaded with bigots and driven by race frenzy is that tea bag leaders won't denounce the racists in their ranks. But that stamps no racial carbon print on tea baggers either. The movement would have to be structured, layered, and regimented with a unitary agenda and program for that to be the case. The all-over-the-map views spouted at the Nashville convention should have dispelled that myth. It's the disparate, disjointed and scrambled headless amoeba that makes the tea party movement potent, appealing and dangerous. Blowing off the tea baggers as a bunch of closet and hooded rednecks misses that point, too.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press).