Harry R. Jackson, Jr.

More recently, the president’s comments about Professor Skip Gates and the Cambridge police officer once again stirred the specter of racism and class warfare in America. As an African American, I am concerned that when the claim of racism is levied, it serves to divide us as fellow Americans, instead of allowing civil democratic debate. Not only is it deceptive, it also may affect the nation like the mythical boy who cried “wolf.” In situations in which racism is really at work, the charge will be taken less seriously in the future because of the frivolous and manipulative use of the charge of racism.

Just two weeks ago, Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver was harassed by a Tea Party participant at a rally in Washington, DC. There is also video footage recording the exchange of this unruly, angry rally participant. Conservative analysts have wasted time asking whether the man spit on Rev. Cleaver or whether it was an unintentional spray.

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, II has a long history of public service. First, he has served Kansas City as the pastor of St. James United Methodist Church with a membership of 2800 since 1974. After three terms as city council member he was elected the first African-American mayor of his city. He also served two terms as President of the National Conference of Black Mayors. Finally, he has been in Congress since 2004 and supported Hillary Clinton versus Barack Obama until the end of the presidential primary. In light of his history and credibility, I believe Rev. Clever was actually called the “N” word. Despite the machinations of a handful of fringe participants, I am sure that racism is not the source of the movement’s energy.

In response to Tea Party critics, conservative media pundits have spent countless hours defending the movement and its motives. I believe that the Tea Party deserves the benefit of the doubt. Nonetheless, it must dispel the idea that it’s a new manifestation of older racist movements.

Ironically, the Tea Party movement has become a victim of its own success. Its popularity represents a threat to “business as usual” inside the Beltway. It is time for real, collaborative leadership to emerge and give direction to the Tea Party. As someone who believes that the Tea Party movement is a return to foundational American values, I suggest a PR makeover. The worst thing that could happen to this movement is that its important message gets marginalized because of poor messaging and management.

Specifically, I recommend that the movement do three things immediately. First, they should apologize for the disrespect many of its members showed Emmanuel Cleaver and other members of Congress two weeks ago. Second, the movement should have rally leaders go through media training and establish a message for each and every event. Third, as the movement grows, it should feature more black and Hispanic speakers. This is not window dressing because millions of minorities share Tea Party concerns but are put off by the movement’s disparaging mainstream media image.

The good news is that if the Tea Party resists the temptation to become an official third party and formalizes its operations, its maximum short-term impact can be realized.

Harry R. Jackson, Jr.

Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.