What's behind yet another summer of racial discontent in America?
President Obama's election spread a balm on America's racial divides. But judging by the flap between the NAACP and the ‘tea party’ movement, its effects were short-lived.
On one side are largely-white "tea party" members depicting President Obama as an African witch doctor, sparking a condemnation from the NAACP last week. On the other is the charge that the Obama Justice Department is "openly hostile" to enforcing civil rights laws against black racists, including members of the New Black Panther Party.
Both charges of racialism, if not outright racism, are incendiary and more powerful because there could be some truth behind each.
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There's plenty of evidence, political scientists say, that a fringe of the tea party movement is over-focused on race, if not to the point of hatred. At the same time, a Justice Department whistleblower says he got word from superiors that the Civil Rights Division will not file suit against African-Americans targeting whites in violation of anti-discrimination laws.
Taken together, the NAACP condemnation against tea partiers, plus conservative uproar over the New Black Panther story, are part of an old tradition in American politics: Stirring racial distrust for political advantage.
Yet the kernels of truth in both cases point to the fact that race is not just an emotional issue for many Americans, but a concept around which policy and political direction are still built.
"The whole discussion is a prime example of how we have, once again, become a very polarized nation, both politically and racially," writes the Root website's Sophia Nelson in the Washington Post.
What promises to be upheaval in the November elections, in part driven by the amorphous "tea party" movement espousing smaller government versus Obama's "big government" ideas, may in part be driven by the suddenly racialized national atmosphere.
Many conservatives see in the New Black Panther Party case, where the US Department of Justice decided to not seek sentencing for a black radical who carried a baton to a Philadelphia poll in 2008, as evidence of racialized politics being played by the Obama administration. On Friday, after testimony by former DOJ attorney J. Christian Adams, the US Civil Rights Commission opened an investigation into whether or not DOJ is pursuing civil rights cases "in a race-neutral fashion."
In attacking the tea party movement, the NAACP sees not just opportunity for raising election day passions among blacks and Democrats, but a chance to define its role in a culture that has shifted greatly since the emergence of the civil rights movement.