'Tea party' and diversity: bad rap from liberals or a genuine need?

Tea party group FreedomWorks this week launched a 'Diverse Tea' website aimed at promoting diversity within the movement. Local tea party officials across the US speak about their views of diversity.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Many photos snapped at tea party rallies – such as this one at the Capitol on Sunday – seem to show only white people. The group Freedom Works hopes to change that perception.

"Tea party" activists know the rap against their movement: It's for white people.

Many tea partyers out in the grass roots don't argue much with that characterization. In photos snapped at tea party rallies, most of the faces in the foreground – and the background – are white. While some tea party members insist that their political insurgency is "not about race," others are bothered by the absence of people of color and want to remedy it.

Count among them, apparently, Freedom Works, a tea party organization. On Tuesday, its leaders announced the debut of "Diverse Tea" – FreedomWorks' new website and campaign aimed at promoting diversity within the tea party movement. The site proclaims the movement's open door: “We are black, brown, and white. We are Jew and gentile. We are from different communities, various backgrounds, and all races, colors, and creeds.”

“I get a little tired of the diversity talk of liberals,” said FreedomWorks leader and former House majority leader Dick Armey at a Monitor breakfast for reporters on Monday.

Of course, "diversity" means different things to different people, and in the absence of many black, Hispanic, or other racial and ethnic members, some tea partyers like to tout their diversity of ideas.

To Robert Cressionnie, a member of the Tar River Tea Party in Rocky Mount, N.C., that means calling out both Democratic and Republican politicians for actions at odds with tea party principles.

“I have been just as hard on the Democrats as the Republicans,” says Mr. Cressionnie in a phone interview. “I play no favorites when it comes to political parties.”

Cressionnie lives in Nash County, where 42 percent of the residents are something other than white, according to census data. He says the diversity issue is “being played up more than it should.” The tea party’s message, he adds, “transcends race.”

Telephone interviews with tea party members in counties that are fairly ethnically and racially diverse yielded wide-ranging viewpoints on the importance of diversity, in keeping with the decentralization that is typical of the movement. The interviews were conducted in conjunction with Patchwork Nation, a reporting project that classifies America's counties by demographic type and examines their political behavior over time, in an effort to take a look at tea parties in immigrant-heavy communities and in African-American-heavy communities.

In north Phoenix, the Deer Valley Tea Party Patriots would like to attract a younger crowd, says facilitator Mike Davis. His group is set in a county with many immigrants, especially Hispanics. He characterizes it as “mostly just people who are conservative who are looking for an outlet.” Members want ethnic diversity to "happen naturally," he says.

“In my tea party, we’ve had people of all races come out,” says Mr. Davis. “We’re still a mostly Caucasian group, but we’re working on it.”

Jennifer Madsen, president of the Baton Rouge Tea Party in Louisiana, questions the relevance of race in the tea party movement.

“Let’s assume that the organization is nothing but old white men,” she says, adding that it clearly is not because she is a woman. “Why does that exclude them from having a political opinion?”

Some tea partyers cite difficulty recruiting people from minority communities.

In California's Sutter County, also rich in immigrants, local tea party official Garrett Tharp says about 30 percent of his group's 800 members are from ethnic minorities: Hispanics, East Indians, and African-Americans.

The East Indian community has responded well to the message of his Yuba Sutter Tea Party Patriots, he says. But the group has had trouble reaching Hispanic residents because of the language barrier. In some communities, like those around Phoenix, tea party groups have taken strong stances against illegal immigration.

Finally, the news media are an impediment to attracting more racial and ethnic minorities to their cause, say some local tea party officials. Negative news coverage of the movement is a big handicap, says Ms. Madsen in Baton Rouge.

“We do want to reach out in the minority community,” she says. “It’s been very, very difficult.”

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