Why 'tea party' defenders won't let N-word claims rest

Black congressmen's charges that they faced 15 N-word slings from 'tea partyers' in the run-up to the health-care vote tarred the movement. Will tea party insistence that the lawmakers present evidence help US move to a 'post-shame' era?

By , Staff writer

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    Tea party demonstrators protest outside the House chamber on Capitol Hill on March 20, the day several congressmen allege they were called the n-word as they passed protesters.
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Unwilling to let charges of racism stand, "tea party" groups continue to challenge claims by members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) that protesters hurled the N-word at them 15 times at a "Code Red" protest in the run-up to the health-care reform vote on March 20.

Without hard evidence for either side, the conventional wisdom might be for tea partyers to let the incident slide and to blame the movement's more radical elements. Instead, a group called the Tea Party Federation sent a letter to the CBC on April 26 demanding video or audio corroboration of the accusations.

Already concerned about agents provocateur infiltrating rallies, tea party members say they either want help to ferret out the guilty party – or an apology from congressmen it if turns out they made up the incident to discredit the tea party movement.

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Amid at least one poll showing that the public perceives the tea party movement to be at least partially racially biased, the forceful letter – added to a $100,000 bounty already out for hard evidence – is a new twist on an old tactic: calling a bluff on the race card. It also adds to an effort by conservatives, given President Obama's election, to move into a "post-shame" age in which the politics of race are dialed back to allow America to move forward.

"Ironically, the fact that a black man is president has made conservatives think that, 'Well, we elected a black guy president and that shows America is not a racist country and we should put this stuff behind us,' " says Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University. "Other politicians, including Hillary and Bill Clinton, have gotten burned by saying that black people will use the race card in their defense even if nothing is going on. But what does work is saying that liberals or Democrats are talking about race in order to hide their true intentions, which [resonates] among independent voters."

So far, it's not clear what happened that day. Deciding to walk outside in the nice spring weather rather than take an underground tunnel, a group of black congressmen walked down the steps of the Capitol and to the Cannon House Office Building.

Hordes of tea party protesters surrounded them and can be heard on video yelling "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!" Reps. André Carson (D) of Indiana and John Lewis (D) of Georgia said in an interview right after the gauntlet walk that they'd also heard the N-word used 15 times by various people in the crowd. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D) of Missouri, who was also in the group, at first said a protester spit on him, but later clarified that the protester had allowed spittle to fly in his direction while yelling.

Since the alleged incident, at least one person used who initially corroborated the story, North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler (D), who is white, has said he did not hear the epithet. The videographer who shot the only available video of the incident says he didn't hear the N-word, but added that it well could have happened, given the tenor of the verbal confrontation.

"A bright line was crossed on the 20th," says Christina Botteri, a spokeswoman for the Tea Party Federation. "The left constantly attacks conservatives as racist, as dumb, as evil, but what happened on the 20th is a sitting congressman, with the full voice and credibility of the House of Representatives, accused a group of citizens with whom he philosophically disagrees of assault and then refused to help find the persons responsible. They need to help us find the people responsible or apologize for making it up."

Conservative Web publisher Andrew Breitbart has accused the congressmen of lying about the incident in an effort to tar the tea party movement. He has gone so far as to offer a $100,000 donation to the United Negro College Fund for proof. Though it appears from footage that at least some of the congressmen's entourage were filming the walk, no one has claimed the bounty.

"[This] is a slander with real-world repercussions," Mr. Breitbart asserts on BigJournalism.com.

Some in the mainstream press have conceded tea partyers may have a point. Washington Post reporter David Weigel has said the March 20 incident is a "paradigm shift" that shows conservatives how the media accept attacks on the right without doing due diligence. Politico's Ben Smith, who keeps a close eye on the tea party movement, Tweeted a response to Breitbart about the lack of takers on the bounty: "I think you've pretty much won this one, no?"

And CNN senior political analyst David Gergen, in an April 14 television appearance, said the incident "was an important moment … a searing moment during the health-care debate.... Many of us took it as sort of like, that's what happened. Now, if it didn't happen, I think it's important to know that."

To the Congressional Black Caucus, meanwhile, the Tea Party Federation's push to keep the incident alive seems illogical, because it holds the spotlight on the ugliness of what one congressional staffer called "two days of terror." The CBC is unlikely to reply to the letter, sources say.

With the March 20 incident in mind, at least one political scientist suggests that America is not ready for "post-shame" politics.

"There are some things that society has rightly come to dissociate with shame, but shame serves an important function in moral thinking," writes Clyde Wilcox, a political scientist at Georgetown University, in an e-mail. "Some of our political arguments today are shameful, and we move to a 'post-shame' era at our peril."

Related:

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