By Benjamin Todd Jealous
President and CEO of the NAACP
We know the majority of Tea Party supporters are sincere, principled people of good will. That is why the NAACP—an organization that has worked to expose and combat racism in all its forms for more than 100 years—is thankful Devin Burghart, Leonard Zeskind and the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights prepared this report that exposes the links between certain Tea Party factions and acknowledged racist hate groups in the United States. These links should give all patriotic Americans pause.
I hope the leadership and members of the Tea Party movement will read this report and take additional steps to distance themselves from those Tea Party leaders who espouse racist ideas, advocate violence, or are formally affiliated with white supremacist organizations. In our effort to strengthen our democracy and ensure rights for all, it is important that we have a reasoned political debate without the use of epithets, the threat of violence, or the resurrection of long discredited racial hierarchies.
This July, delegates to the 101st NAACP National Convention unanimously passed a resolution condemning outspoken racist elements within the Tea Party, and called upon Tea Party leaders to repudiate those in their ranks who use white supremacist language in their signs and speeches, and those Tea Party leaders who would subvert their own movement by spreading racism.
The resolution came after a year of high-profile media coverage of racial slurs and images at
Tea Party marches around the country. In March, members of the Congressional Black Caucus reported that racial epithets were hurled at them as they passed by a Washington, DC health care protest. Civil rights legend John Lewis was called the “n-word” in the incident while others in the crowd used ugly anti-gay slurs to describe Congressman Barney Frank, a long-time NAACP supporter and the nation’s first openly gay member of Congress. Local NAACP members reported similar racially-charged incidents at local Tea Party rallies.
At first, the resolution sparked defensive, misleading public responses from the usual corners. First, Tea
Party leaders denied our claims were valid. Then Fox News repeatedly circulated the false claim that we were calling the Tea Party itself racist. Then their commentators and other media personalities said the Tea Party was too loosely configured to police itself.
Local NAACP volunteers and staff members around the country were barraged by angry phone calls and death threats.
Yet, amid the threats and denials, something remarkable began to happen: Tea Party leaders began to quietly take steps toward actively policing explicitly racist activity within their ranks.
Before the end of July, the Tea Party Federation had expelled Mark Williams, then-president of the powerful and politically-connected Tea Party Express for his most-recent racially offensive public statements, a move they had previously refused to make. The move was significant for three reasons: 1) it proved wrong those national leaders and news personalities who said the Tea Party was too loosely configured to insist its leaders act responsibly, 2) it sparked a rift among Tea Party leadership between those who are tolerant of racist rhetoric and those who would stand against it, and 3) it showed our resolution was having an impact. Soon after, Montana conservative Tim Ravndal was fired as head of the Big Sky Tea Party Association after local media published messages posted to his Facebook account that appeared to advocate violence against gays and lesbians.
In the midst of all this, Tea Party leaders moved quickly to take on a communications strategy typical of corporate crisis public relations. A “Uni-Tea” rally to promote Tea Party diversity was hastily organized, while FreedomWorks launched a “Diverse Tea” web initiative to spotlight pictures of nonwhite Tea Partiers. There was a Tea Party leadership “race summit” facilitated by Geraldo Rivera.
In August, Fox News personality and Tea Party icon Glenn Beck instructed his followers to leave all signs at home in the lead-up to his rally on the National Mall to avoid media scrutiny, and has since admonished Tea Partiers across the nation to “dress normally,” lest their signs and t-shirts distract from the fiscal message for which he would prefer the Tea Party be recognized. In some areas, the response appears to have spread beyond the Tea Party itself. In September, former Florida Republican Party Chair Jim Greer made a surprise public apology for the “racist views” among some members of his party.
These are welcome first steps. They promote diversity and acknowledge the inherent perception problem that plagues the Tea Party: that while many of its leaders are motivated by common conservative budget and governance concerns, for too long they have tolerated others who espouse racism and xenophobia and, in some instances, are formally associated with organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens—the direct lineal descendant of the White Citizens Council.
This report, from the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, serves as a cautionary reminder that Mark Williams is not unique within Tea Party leadesrhip circles and that ties between Tea Party factions and acknowledged racist groups endure. It is the most comprehensive research to date into the Tea Party’s scope and emergence onto our political landscape. I extend my personal thanks to the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights for this research report.
Tea Party Nationalism is a product of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. Neither the NAACP nor its leadership was involved in its research or authorship.