Editorials

Looking past tea party

Tea party organizers are outraged that leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are calling their movement racist. But as the old saying goes, we are judged by the company we keep - as well as the enemies we make.

Tea party leaders were outraged to hear that the NAACP had introduced a resolution at its 101st annual convention in Kansas City that accused the movement of "harboring racist elements that are a threat to our democracy."

Tea party leaders, for whom the "tea" stands for "taxed enough already," have tried mightily to beat back charges of racism as they oppose the nation's first black president.

In fact, I'm sure tea party supporters, who are almost indistinguishable from other far-right conservatives, would love to pass a resolution of their own to condemn racist elements in the NAACP, if they had a national structure and leadership.

Instead, they pride themselves on staying "grass roots" with lots of organizations carrying the tea party name, but nobody truly accountable for the national movement.

That lack of accountability has its advantages. When you're not obligated to come up with solutions, you can spend more time complaining about the problems.

However, it does leave your national image at the mercy of whoever happens to show up at your rallies and catch media eyes and microphones with the most outrageous protest signs or sound-bites, some of which may be racially tinged.

As a result, according to an ABC News-Washington Post poll in May, 57 percent of tea party opponents and 28 percent of people who say they are neutral toward the movement suspect racial prejudice in the movement's ranks.

Nonsense, say the tea party supporters I have interviewed at rallies and elsewhere. They're offended that the NAACP or anyone else would make the accusation. After all, they point out, there were numerous examples of similarly rude signs depicting President George W. Bush as Hitler, Stalin, Satan and the like during his eight years.

Payback is a prominent theme in tea party rhetoric. As liberals took their turn to set the national agenda after Obama's election, tea party conservatives rose up to take their turn as angry, complaining, "grass roots," outsider victims. That's regime change, American-style.

As the ABC-Post poll found, only 58 percent of tea party supporters are likely to see racism as a major problem in this country, compared to 75 percent of all Americans. And, as just about everyone has noticed by now, tea party supporters are more likely to be white - 81 percent, compared to 74 percent of all adults and 65 percent of tea party opponents. As Gary Langer, ABC News polling director, observed, whites are less likely than nonwhites to see racism as a major problem.

That's a big divide between the tea party and most black Americans, who are far more likely to see racism as a problem. In that regard, African-Americans are not likely to view professed tea party indifference to racism as much more of a virtue than outright support of it would be.

But a bigger and more revealing surprise about changing attitudes came out of a Pew Research Center poll in late June. It showed blacks (81 percent) and Hispanics (74 percent) to be more optimistic than whites (57 percent) about their financial outlook over the next year, despite their being harder hit by the recession.

Democrats (70 percent) and independents (62 percent) also were more optimistic than Republicans (55 percent). Blacks and liberals may see racism as a bigger problem than white conservatives do, but it apparently has not dimmed their hopes for a brighter future.

Contact Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist at cpage@tribune.com.

  Comments