WASHINGTON -- It is regrettable, and perhaps inevitable, that Barack Obama's swift political slide should reopen racial controversies that were temporarily closed by his decisive presidential victory.
Liberals have a tendency to blame the broad revolt against Obama's fiscal policies and economic failures on latent racism, particularly in the tea party movement. It is an explanation that avoids, or at least delays, the unpleasant necessity of ideological readjustment. Some conservatives, in turn, seem unwilling to acknowledge that populist conservative movements often have racist and nativist elements -- and by this denial seem tolerant of bigotry in their midst.
Last week these issues emerged with a cable- and blog-borne vengeance. The NAACP national convention approved a resolution condemning tea party racism. Conservatives charged the NAACP with raw political partisanship. One tea party chapter called for the IRS to reconsider the NAACP's tax-exempt status. A prominent tea party leader, radio talk-show host Mark Williams, responded to the NAACP accusation by promptly confirming it -- producing a racist parody that employed just about every stereotype in the Jim Crow repertoire.
But beneath this depressing controversy, the facts are more encouraging. The NAACP resolution did not conclude that the tea party movement as a whole is racist; it called upon its leadership to repudiate racist elements. "We don't think the tea party is racist," said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, "but we don't think they've gone far enough yet either (in condemning racist incidents)." Vice President Joe Biden agreed, characterizing the movement as "very conservative, very different views on government and a whole lot of things. But it is not a racist organization."
Meanwhile, the National Tea Party Federation -- representing 61 tea party groups around the country -- expelled Williams (and his organization, the Tea Party Express) over the racist blog post. The parody, said National Tea Party Federation spokesman David Webb, was "clearly offensive." Williams was not repentant -- apologizing mainly for using the term "massa" -- but his marginalization was swift.
To summarize: The president of the NAACP affirmed that the tea party movement is not racist. His organization urged tea party leaders to publicly condemn the movement's racist elements -- which the Tea Party Federation did almost immediately. These developments are small but significant signs of sanity.