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.
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.
"For two groups who lament the bias of the national media so much, both these organizations never saw a camera they didn’t want to step in front of and begin preaching to their respective choirs," writes the Kansas City Star's Daniel Starling. "Maybe it is a good sign we stop tiptoeing around the historical issues related to race, class, and religion and take them head-on with our political leaders, in our communities … and within ourselves."
Polls show that 53 percent of tea party followers believe that too much has been made of the problems faced by black people – evidence to many political scientists that race, including Obama's – is part of the movement’s driving force.
Tea party leaders see it a different way: "The Obama White House and liberal interest groups are hitting the panic button as they read weekly polls showing diminishing support for their radical big government issue agenda, and a weariness for the politics of division," write tea party activists Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler in Politico.
The thrust of the NAACP resolution dated back to the healthcare vote this spring, when many members of the Congressional Black Caucus felt berated, if not assaulted, by what they perceived to be racial taunts from tea partiers. That controversy has hardly been settled.
But the specter of states' rights – which, to many blacks, is reminiscent of arguments against desegregation in the 1960s – is more integral to the NAACP's condemnation than charges of racism, says civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“The issue was not whether the tea party was or was not racist,” Mr. Sharpton told the Kansas City Star newspaper. “It’s whether or not the philosophy of the tea party is anti-civil rights. [Their] political philosophy is reversal of civil rights by supporting states rights to supersede the federal government.”
Who this summer of racial discontent will ultimately benefit is the open question. For both sides, playing the race card could backfire.
While many middle-class Americans may share the "small government" ideals of the tea party movement, its racialized aspects could scare many voters, including many conservative blacks, away from the conservative tent and ticket. Others may be turned off by liberals trying to squelch legitimate debate about the direction of the nation by playing the race card.