Nasty 'tea party'-NAACP racism feud: Who's right?

NAACP leaders on Tuesday called on the 'tea party' to repudiate racist elements and activities in its midst. Tea partyers say the NAACP is all wrong. Poll data offer a more nuanced picture.

By , Staff writer

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    Ben Jealous, the newly elected president of the NAACP, blasted the 'tea party' during the NAACP's annual convention in Kansas City, saying the movement is dividing the country and 'represents a small and dying demographic.' He is picture here in a May 17, 2008, file photo.
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Is the "tea party" movement racist?

That question arises because leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the largest civil rights group in the US, on Tuesday approved a resolution condemning racism within the tea party movement. Some tea party groups tolerate bigotry, said the NAACP officials.

The NAACP’s leaders approved the resolution during their annual convention in Kansas City. Final wording won’t be released until the NAACP board of directors approves the move at a meeting in October.

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But the resolution approved Tuesday “calls on the tea party and all people of good will to repudiate the racist element and activities within the tea party,” said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau.

Tea party leaders around the nation reacted with anger to the NAACP’s actions.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a tea party favorite, issued a statement saying that NAACP claims that tea party members judge people by the color of their skin are “false and appalling.”

Palin said she was “saddened by the NAACP’s claim that patriotic Americans ... are somehow racists.”

Tea party activists say their loosely organized movement’s guiding principles center around the need for a smaller federal government and lower taxes.

Charges of racism have surfaced in the past, largely in response to individuals at tea party meetings making comments or displaying signs that minority groups find offensive. Some African-American lawmakers, including Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, a hero of the civil rights movement, have said that tea party activists yelled racial epithets or spat at them as they arrived at the Capitol for the final vote on health-care reform legislation in March.

It is true that the demographics of tea party groups are overwhelmingly white, according to polls. A recent Gallup survey found that 79 percent of tea party supporters are non-Hispanic whites. Only six percent are non-Hispanic blacks.

A Gallup analysis notes, however, that these figures are not wildly different from the representation of these groups in the population as a whole.

A July Gallup survey found that only 13 percent of self-identified tea party supporters listed “discrimination against minority groups” as an extremely serious threat to well-being. But the opinion of tea party opponents was not much different. Some 17 percent of the anti-tea party crowd thought discrimination an extremely serious threat.

In general, the concerns of people who describe themselves as tea party followers are not much different from those who identify themselves as Republicans, notes Gallup.

“Those who describe themselves as tea party supporters are in many ways indistinguishable from, and largely a subset of, Republican identifiers more generally,” concludes a Gallup analysis.

Perhaps these figures show that the demographics of the tea party are mainstream, but they reveal little about their racial attitudes, writes University of Maryland at Baltimore County political scientist Tom Schaller on the political blog Five Thirty Eight.

Data from an April University of Washington poll “paint a more complicated picture” of the tea party, according to Schaller.

This survey found that only 35 percent of tea party adherents rated African-Americans as “hard-working.” Among whites who disapprove of the tea party, the comparable figure was 55 percent.

Some 45 percent of tea partiers judged African-Americans “intelligent,” according to the University of Washington poll. By comparison, 59 percent of anti-tea party whites viewed African-Americans as intelligent.

Some conservatives believe there is a systematic attempt to demonize the tea party movement, and there is probably some truth to that, according to Schaller.

“But in the same vein, aberrant opinions espoused by tea partiers or their sympathizers should neither be ignored nor papered-over,” Schaller writes.

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