Are the organizations that make up the Tea Party movement fundamentally racist? If not, are they too lackadaisical about addressing hard racist elements among their overwhelmingly white memberships?
Controversy over these questions was recently sparked anew when Ben Jealous of the NAACP accused Tea Party leaders of not sufficiently repudiating bigoted rhetoric and imagery in Tea Party events and online forums. As if to prove Jealous’ point, Mark Williams, the bilious former leader of Tea Party Express, popped up to post an online missive that fit his habit of throwing racially charged insults (he once called Barack Obama an “Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug”). Williams’ rebuttal to Jealous’ challenge, posted to his personal blog, marktalks.com, took the form of a fictional letter to Abraham Lincoln sent from “the Coloreds,” in which the latter claim to “have taken a vote and decided that we don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing.”
To its credit, the National Tea Party Federation, the movement’s umbrella group, responded quickly by expelling Williams. But this welcome move does not settle the matter of Tea Party racism. Williams remains active in the Tea Party Express, one of the nation’s largest Tea Party groups, and the diffuse nature of the movement makes it difficult if not impossible to gauge Williams’ support among the grassroots that has over the last year heartily welcomed Williams to dozens of Tea Party events around the country.
Whatever Williams’ official expulsion signifies—a genuine sign that Tea Party leaders will no longer tolerate bigotry from activists who work under the Tea Party banner, or simply a realization that it has an image problem on its hands—the fact remains that the Williams kerfuffle was hardly the first instance of racist rhetoric emanating from Tea Parties. From homemade signage to racist email blasts, there has been plenty to condemn dating back to April of 2009. Much more often than not, this racist behavior has generally been met by Tea Party activists with either silence or denial.
The most notable example of this silence and denial is the complete lack of recognition that white supremacist groups increasingly view Tea Parties as rich recruiting grounds. The average Tea Partier may not be interested in joining a hate group, but hate groups have not been shy about their interest in the average Tea Partier. For over a year, racist groups have lurked on the periphery of the Tea Party scene seeking to exploit the fact that, as MSNBC commentator Pat Buchanan recently noted with satisfaction, “For the first time in our lifetimes, outside the South, white racial consciousness has visibly begun to rise.”
Take, for example, the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC). The descendant of the pro-segregation Citizens Councils of the 1950s, the CCC is a proudly racist organization. Its literature and website on occasion still display its original motto: “States Rights. Racial Integrity.” Its newspaper and website trade loudly in crude racist tropes, inveigh against interracial marriage and immigration, and make common cause with far-right, virulently anti-immigrant political parties around the world.
Because the group is so blatantly racist, it is hard to imagine any movement that claims mainstream credibility—one representing the concerns of “everyday Americans”—having any tolerance for the CCC. One would expect such a respectable movement to chase the CCC out of its events. Its message of hate is, after all, at odds with the Tea Party’s professed inclusive message of deficit reduction and smaller government.
And yet, at a Tea Party attended by this reporter last January in Inverness, Fla., the CCC set up a prominent information booth from which it handed out literature for more than three hours. At no point did a single attendee of the rally, which featured a line-up of state-level GOP candidates and politicians, challenge the presence or ideology of the CCC. The following day, the organization had good reason to be pleased with its reception and deemed the event a success. According to the CCC blog, the organization’s representatives “passed out 2 boxes of THE CITIZENS INFORMER newspaper, and 250 Council business cards.” No arguments ensued.
The Inverness event was not the first time a Florida chapter of the CCC had worked a Tea Party event and later boasted of its easy reception. “[Council] receives warm welcome in Crystal River, Florida,” declared the CCC site following its presence at a Tea Party on Sept. 12, 2009. “Council members distributed 3 boxes of The Citizens Informer and applications,” the site explained without mentioning any conflict or opposition from the gathered.
Tolerating the presence of the Council of Conservative Citizens does not mean that everyone at these events is a racist. But the lack of opposition to the presence of CCC recruiters suggests that the NAACP is correct: the Tea Parties are, at best, far too tolerant of extremist groups in their midst. At worst, there is an unspoken ideological affinity. Whatever the case, the presence of the CCC highlights how explicitly racist hate groups like the CCC seek to exploit the Tea Party movement to expand their own white nationalist movement.
This strategy is no secret. Jamie Kelso of American Third Position (A3P), a white nationalist group that describes itself as “a political party for white Americans,” has even discussed its intricacies with Hatewatch. According to Kelso, groups like A3P and CCC work off the assumption of a symbiotic relationship between Tea Party groups that are “implicitly white” — defined as a group that has almost entirely white memberships but does not openly discuss race — and more marginal groups that openly discuss race and thus are “explicitly white.”
Early on, Kelso developed an upbeat take on the Tea Parties’ susceptibility to the white nationalist message. After a May 16, 2009, rally in Southern California, he wrote in a blog post: “Every time I yelled ‘We want our country back!’, I am sure that 99% of the 99% White crowd that responded so enthusiastically to that chant UNDERSTOOD that the ‘we’ and the ‘our’ in ‘we want our country back!’ was (and is) our White people. … I'm also sure that this army of Minutemen had some very good implicit (and explicit) understanding of WHO stole their country from them and their children.’"
“Everyone accepted our literature and we received enthusiastic responses from most takers,” an A3P organizer wrote of another event, adding, “It is crucial that we network at implicitly white activities such as Tea Parties and Euro festivals.”
The challenge, as Kelso sees it, is to get Tea Partiers to make the leap from attending a Tea Party event to joining a full-fledged hate group. That’s where the conversations and free literature come into play. “The word is bridge,” Kelso told Hatewatch. “I’m a bridger. That’s what I’ve been doing all along.”
The expulsion of Mark Williams was a good start to cleaning the Tea Party house. But it will be up to Tea Party leaders and activists to keep up the work. Unless the Tea Party leadership and grassroots begin to take much stronger—and regular—stands against haters who aim to recruit from, or infiltrate, their ranks, their denials of racism will ring even more hollow than they already do.