Reports in Review


The Tea Parties’ Racist Edge

Tea Party Nationalism

Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, October 2010, 94pp

You are not alone if you are confused about the organization of the Tea Party—or more accurately, the Tea Partiesand what they stand for. Are they run from above by “astroturf” groups that pretend to be grassroots, or are they a genuinely insurgent, right-wing populist phenomenon? Are they representative, as they claim, of mainstream America? Do they just want smaller government and lower taxes? If so, why do some members come to rallies sporting guns and waving hateful signs? This timely report tackles these questions, rekindles the debate about racism in the Tea Parties’ ranks, and asks a few pointed questions of its own.

The Tea Parties have wrestled with criticism about their attitudes toward race since their beginnings in 2009. Last summer the NAACP challenged Tea Party leaders to repudiate their openly racist comments and to ask their members to stop using language that promotes White supremacism. The reactions of various Tea Party groups ranged from denial and righteous indignation to purges of overtly offensive spokespeople.

The collection of groups that identify as the Tea Party is arguably the most vigorous social movement of the decade, a backlash against Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign and legislative agenda. It emerged from the ranks of overwhelmingly White working- and middle-class disaffected voters who are worried about their economic, political, and sometimes social status. While they have rallied around small government, lower taxes, and more freedom, this report reveals that many Tea Party spokespeople are also motivated by a fear of losing White privilege.

Authors Burghart and Zeskind published their important and relevant research less than two weeks before the midterm elections of 2010. Their report examines six Tea Party organizations, from the top-down Freedom Works group led by former Congressman Dick Armey, to grassroots groups such as the Tea Party Patriots, to Tea Party Nation, a for-profit group that organized a February 2010 convention keynoted by Sarah Palin.

Tea Party Nationalism argues that while most members of Tea Party groups are “sincere, principled people of good will,” as the foreword by NAACP President Benjamin Jealous states, the leaders and spokespeople of five of the six factions described in the report have histories with anti-immigrant, nativist, “birther,” or other racialized ideologies. Not only do Tea Party groups have crossover membership with racist groups such as the Council of Concerned Citizens, but they also repeatedly use bigoted language to present their vision of America as a place that values Whites above all others.  The 1776 Tea Party, or, has close associations with the anti-immigrant Minutemen. Dale Robertson, 1776’s founder, infamously carried a sign to a Tea Party rally that said, “Congress = Slaveowner, Taxpayer = Niggar.” According to the report, ResistNet, another group, has stated on its website, “We are at a point of having to take a stand against all Muslims.” The report’s evidence is damning, although in the immediate aftermath of its well-publicized publication, Tea Party representatives vehemently denied their racism.

Tea Party members are not motivated only by racial resentment, however. A University of Washington poll showed that one-third of Tea Party supporters strongly opposed allowing gay men and lesbians to adopt children or to serve in the military. Information like this rounds out a picture of the Tea Parties and should help activists design more effective strategic responses.

Analysts and progressive advocates are still trying to get a handle on the phenomenon of the Tea Parties. Why does it matter whether the Tea Parties are astroturf or grassroots in their structure? Top-down control indicates a national structure, presumably with access to money, trying to manage the messaging and influence of a political movement. Grassroots organizing suggests a more decentralized, harder-to-control movement. As it happens, the report makes a convincing case that both approaches are at play simultaneously. The implications for activists include the need to monitor the leading players as they jockey for power over the movement and to recognize that grassroots insurgencies are hard to manage, like the proverbial task of herding cats.

At this early moment in the development of the Tea Parties, their future remains unclear. How will they influence electoral politics?  If they continue to attract members who are susceptible to overt or coded White supremacist ideas, the growth of such a movement would not portend well.

—Pam Chamberlain

Other Reports in Review

Better Together

Research Findings on the Relationship between Racial Justice Organizations and LGBT Communities

Oakland, CA: Applied Research Center, 2010, 20 pp., (PDF)

A lot of talk circulates among activists these days about the value of organizing at the intersections of political issues, for example, looking at racial justice through a sexuality lens and vice versa. While progressive activists assume that this cross-sectional work is a good idea, according to this breakthrough report, very little of it actually occurs in our movements. Organizations do not focus on intersectional work often enough to overcome the inevitable barriers it meets. Nor do such groups develop what this report calls “strategic clarity” about why intersectional work is a good idea in the first place.

The researchers surveyed eighty organizations. About half were self-identified racial justice groups, and half were lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender groups that focused on people of color. To tease out how to strengthen the relationships between racial justice and LGBT groups, the researchers also interviewed more than thirty LGBT activists who are working to improve that relationship.

The report looks at logistical questions about how racial justice and LGBT groups work, both together and side by side. How much is being done now; what barriers prevent enhanced cooperation; and what funders can do to support this effort were the central research questions. These are answered concisely in a set of commonsense recommendations:

  1. Increase support for LGBT groups of color and for collaborations among racial justice and LGBT groups.
  2. Support research about LGBT people of color  that will contribute to useful strategy designs.
  3. Provide substantial leadership development for LGBT leaders of color.
  4. Publicize important research results about LGBT people of color and build media and communications strength among racial justice and LGBT people of color organizations.

But Better Together poses an important strategic question for movement organizations seeking to strengthen connections between racial justice and LGBT constituencies. Although these groups would seem to have a natural connection because of common enemies and even common causes, the report suggests that groups do not make the commitment to doing cross-sectional work unless they have first reached “strategic clarity” about such activities. In other words, an organization will have a better chance of success if it knows why it is setting the goals it does. This process is of crucial value to any group, and the report is right in highlighting its importance. Its shortcoming is in not digging deeper to find out how to enable groups to reach a clear understanding of their shared agendas.

The report clearly describes the barriers to a nuanced understanding. For instance, half of the racial justice organizations polled said that LGBT issues were “not central to the organization’s goals.” Yet the policy issues central to racial justice, from education and healthcare to housing, employment, immigration, and criminal justice, are also issues of concern to LGBT communities. The activists interviewed report that although homophobia in some racial justice and religious communities, and lack of racial diversity in LGBT organizations can be barriers, when groups buckle down and share work they can also learn to overcome such obstacles.

Reaching “strategic clarity” remains elusive for many groups. The report suggests two remedies: first, generate more data that demonstrates LGBT concerns in a racial justice lens; and second, explore the “sexuality dimensions of traditional racial justice issues.”  While important, these research activities are not a substitute for the in-house, honest review of goals and strategies in relation to other progressive issues that many activists report has been the turning point for their organizations. In fact, progressive groups can benefit from both aspects of collaboration: shared work and internal commitment to cross-issue activities.  While Better Together does discuss the value of working together across issues, it would have been improved by highlighting how a group can facilitate that necessary internal self-examination.

—Pam Chamberlain

Fall 2010
Vol. 25, No. 3 :


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