Small Signs of Sanity

Michael Gerson
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Posted: Jul 21, 2010 12:01 AM
Small Signs of Sanity

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.

In the long, tense months until the November congressional elections, a little sanity will be needed. It will be easy for left and right to play the sign-and-clip game -- calling massive attention to a single hateful poster at a rally or a single disturbing video loop. There is a serious danger when evidence of ideological aggression is both easily falsified and universally distributed. And even when these images turn out to be real, they generally do not justify sweeping accusations. In making its case against tea party racism, the NAACP produced seven photographs of offensive posters at tea party rallies -- a pretty thin indictment. At the same time, Fox News obsessively played video showing two members of the New Black Panthers wearing military gear outside a Philadelphia polling station in 2008, one carrying a nightstick. Voter intimidation is a serious thing and a federal crime. But two men engaged in an act of revolutionary political theater do not a conspiracy make.

These reactions are disproportionate across the political spectrum -- and disproportionate for obvious reasons. Some are seeking ratings, hits, supporters and attention by stoking racial fires. And too many Americans are searching for excuses to justify their rage.

This is irresponsible precisely because racial conflict is America's deepest wound, still poorly healed. Why are some African-Americans suspicious of large, predominately white, conservative populist movements? Well, let's see. Perhaps because they have suffered provocations throughout American history that make the complaints of Boston's original tea party movement seem trivial in comparison. Perhaps because the Constitutional Convention itself was a conspiracy against their rights. Perhaps because great historical wrongs are still comparatively recent. The last African-American born into slavery died only 40 or 50 years ago. The last African-American born into segregation will not die for another 50 or 60 years.

Conservatives, of all people, should understand that history does not die quickly; it lingers in a shallow, restless sleep. No one, including the NAACP, should pick at historical scabs for their own benefit. But given our history, the tea party movement has a positive duty to assure African-Americans that it is the second coming of Barry Goldwater, not of George Wallace. The expulsion of Mark Williams is a start.