Below is an essay by Erica Schweitzer on the historical and cultural roots of “The Tea Party.” Erica is a graduate student at Emerson College. I am posting this because I believe it should have wide circulation: she has cut through the smoke and mirrors and offers us a context for understanding this recent phenomena, only the latest version of a faux-populist movement. Illuminating and disturbing, it offers a level of honest analysis that you won’t get from the usual pundits.
America’s Tea Party Movement:
The Rhetoric of Patriotism and the Politics of Whiteness
Standing before a crowd of more than a thousand Bostonians and flanked by buses bearing the slogan “Just Vote Them Out!” Sarah Palin called for all “liberty-loving Americans” to “sound the warning bell.” Almost every line she delivered during the April 14, 2010 rally on Boston Common was met with cheers from the crowd of Tea Party supporters packed against the stage and boos from the large group of Anti-Tea Party protesters amassed on the fringes. “We know what the problem is,” she said, “and now we’re going to fix that problem.”
Though the word “problem” was articulated with both clarity and a palpable intensity, a clear explanation of the nature of the Tea Party’s actual problems seemed to go unstated. Moving through the crowd proved to be little help when attempting to determine the central goals of the movement. Many pro-Tea Party signs featured Obama’s face paired with the word “Socialist” or phrases like “We Know Our Rights” and “More Freedom, Less Tax.” Notably, numerous protestors also carried signs for “Palin 2012.”
While the grievances of its members seem to encompass a litany of issues, the umbrella of the Tea Party Movement has become what New York Times journalist David Barstow calls an “amorphous, factionalized uprising.” With leaders like Palin who continue to call for Americans to “fight for God, Pride, and Prosperity,” the rhetoric of revolution seems to hide any well-supported explanation of the movement’s motivations. Given the rapid expansion of the Tea Party Movement, the fervor expressed by its members and the multiplicity of its messages, it is necessary to take a closer look at the ideology behind the organization.
Throughout American history, racial and political rhetoric has often been used in tandem and been widely employed as a means of masking the vested economic interests of white America. For this reason, any large scale movements, especially ones that utilize such loaded and polarizing rhetoric as “patriotism” and “true America,” warrant a close inquiry that seeks to understand which individuals benefit most from the movement’s success. To understand the danger implicit in the establishment of organizations such as the Tea Party Movement, it is also critical to view its origins in relation to America’s history of racial discrimination. Furthermore, one must view the movement with an understanding of the way in which white America has consciously sought to maintain economic dominance since the establishment of slavery.
When exploring the development of white economic power in the United States, it is necessary to first look at the establishment of slavery in North America and the way in which its abolition upset a long standing culture of white dominance. Regardless of the social, cultural or religious beliefs that could arguably provide an ideological grounding for the enslavement of Africans by whites, slavery is–at its deepest roots–an economically motivated institution. In his essay “White Atlantic? The Choice for African Slave Labor in the Plantation Americas,” Seymour Drescher contends that the potential for relatively fast and significant economic growth in the New World was the primary motivation behind the slave trade (32). As English settlers moved westward, “The opening of the Atlantic invited the creation of a virtually unconstrained form of capitalism, whose beneficiaries created and dealt in human chattels from Africa as their labor force” (Drescher 32). With a virtually “free” source of human labor, white slave owners were capable of farming seemingly boundless capital from their new land.
While economic motivations were undoubtedly the key factor in the development of slavery in North America, it is also important to at least note that the subordination of non-white races was a practice supported by the Anglo-Christian ideology. Rooted in the religious dichotomy between white as good and black as evil, Mab Segrest suggests that the Christian belief system “led the English to see Africans as both ‘black’ and ‘heathen’ and to link them immediately with barbitary, animalistic behavior and the devil” (191). This type of underlying racism could, in the case of the white slave owners, be presented as a superficial form of justification for the involuntary servitude forced on Africans.
Looking at the marginalization of non-white groups in America during the era of the first English settlers, George Lipsitz, author of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, expands on the superficial justification for slavery when he asserts that the desire for slave labor and the subsequent economic prosperity it made possible was reinforced by the notion that Africans, as well as Native Americans, were “by nature” suited for the humiliating subordination of slavery. This belief was further supported by the early colonial legal systems, which “established a possessive investment in whiteness” by encouraging settlers to attack Native Americans and appropriate their lands (Lipsitz 2). The Anglo-Christian ideologies about racism provided a surface level validation for settlers’ internalization of white supremacy for the purpose of economic gain.
In the years preceding the civil war and before the abolition movement gained significant support, the framework of oppression became deeply engrained in the American way of life, especially in the South. In his book The Highest Stage of White Supremacy, John W. Cell describes the way in which the institution of slavery guaranteed that power remained in white hands. “Imposed by power, enforced by law, legitimized by religion and by social theory, the vertical patterns of dominance within the system of chattel slavery were normally quite sufficient to guarantee the security of the white ruling class” (Cell 83). It was not until calls for abolition began to gain volume and the threat of Civil War seemed eminent that the carefully constructed system of white dominance was called into question.
Though slave-owners were a minority amongst the white southern population, in order to continue exploiting slave labor and thus maintaining their source of wealth, members of the white elite actively sought to align lower class whites with their pro-slavery cause. Illustrating the action taken by ruling class whites, George Fredrickson, author of White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History, asserts that “Only by stressing the non-slaveholders social and psychological stake in slavery as a system of racial control could they hope to maintain a united front against the Republican-dominated government that was thought to be bent on the ‘ultimate extinction’ of the institution”(161). The livelihood of the wealthy, politically active slave-holding southerners then became contingent on presenting the institution of slavery not as enabler of economic superiority, but as one that reinforced the supposed social or psychological dominance of the white race. Those seeking to counter the growing Republican push for abolition in the late eighteen hundreds “pandered at once to the democratic sensibilities and the racial prejudices of the ‘plain folk’”(Fredrickson 155). Thus, employing the manpower of the lower class has been a key strategy used by white elites to maintain economic dominance for more than a century.
Digging deeper into the governing ideology of white supremacy as presented by white elites and the politicians who represented their interests, Frederickson highlights how the spreading assumptions and misrepresentations of the abolition movement also functioned as a way to mobilize the white lower class. “Charges that abolitionists promoted inter-racial marriage or ‘amalgamation’ set off two of the most savage riots of the tumultuous 1830’s…”(Frederickson 153). Though “amalgamation” was not a distinct goal of abolitionists, its association with their movement helped motivate the misinformed white lower class to oppose abolition in general. While the white lower class did not benefit from slavery in the same way as their elite white brethren, their ability to oppose abolition based on a socially constructed belief system was critical for ensuring the upper class’ maintenance of power.
Despite the still widespread support for slavery across the South, defeat in the Civil War and the creation of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 led to Reconstruction, a period in which black slaves in the South rapidly gained citizenship and the right to vote (Lynch 7). With their newly earned rights, black citizens could hypothetically seek education in the North and pursue careers as educators, clergymen, and even lawyers. Perhaps more importantly, black citizens were capable of owning property and working for wages, meager as they may have been (“Reconstruction and It’s Aftermath”). The freedom to become literate, coupled with the ability to obtain land and hold paid positions suggested a new potential for upward mobility that had previously been unattainable to blacks. While this period likely seemed full of promise for African Americans, the rights were short lived.
It is not surprising that the newfound freedom of millions of previously enslaved blacks had an immense economic and psychological effect on the white population of laborers who had previously been the only paid workforce in the South. Because black laborers were in most cases willing to work for less pay and produced on average more tobacco and cotton, “white tenants were often replaced by black, a trend that seems to have increased during the depression of the 1890’s” (Cell 115). Not surprisingly, the competition for jobs resulted in strong tensions between the white lower class and the newly freed black labor force.
The explosion of racism amongst lower class whites can be seen as deeply rooted in economic displacement, but fueled by the same ideologies that functioned as the superficial justification for slavery from its onset. As John W. Cell points out in his text The Highest Stage of White Supremacy, “The racist culture was constantly being replenished and reinvigorated by the evolving structure of contemporary social and power relations” (118). Since money and the upward mobility that enables individuals to obtain it are so closely linked in a capitalistic society, the rabid racism that lower class whites harbored for their black counterparts was directly related to the fear of more equal power within society. This fear of the white race being unseated can be directly linked to what Lipsitz calls “the possessive investment in whiteness that is responsible for the racialized hierarchies in our society” (1). The seed of this possessive investment in whiteness had been planted during the years in which abolition was a threat, yet now that the slaves had been freed, the need to remain superior would have to be achieved through systematic, economic discrimination.
The establishment and organization of white supremacist groups and the emergence of the political elite who sought to gain power by representing the disenfranchised white lower class are events that should be investigated side by side because their origins are inextricably linked. The equality between blacks and whites that was promised during Reconciliation ignited a flurry of economically rooted, racially motivated fears amongst lower class whites. However, without organization, the poor whites would lack the potential to gain enough political momentum to reverse the equal rights promised in the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments. John Cell contends that “Unless economic forces or interests are organized and articulated they will not long survive, much less succeed in dominating a literate, sophisticated, conscious society. Once organized, however, these interests at once cease to be merely economic and become political forces”(104). Thus, if the white elite who benefitted the most from black oppression could unite the white lower class, they would ensure the development of policies that could counteract black economic equality. With the support of the masses, the white elite could then find the necessary backing for a more absolute, government mandated form of discrimination.
Many of the white politicians that gained power in the wake of Reconciliation worked on the local and state level to take back the economic potential that had been promised to black citizens. On a local level, white officials such James Cobb in Macon County ran for office and, when elected, pushed a racially motivated agenda. In Memoir of a Race Traitor, Segrest admits that in 1874 her predecessor Cobb, “did his part to restore white rule to his county, sentencing two Black legislators to the chain gang for larceny and adultery” (208). Thanks to widespread support from the white lower class in the South, government officials on the national stage also turned their backs on newly freed slaves. Though the Federal Government initially stationed troops in the South to ensure that Reconciliation policies remained in place, in 1877 Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew his last troop, an act that ended the last semblance of governmental support for equality (Lynch 7).
The largest government-instigated act of discrimination came in the form of the Jim Crow Laws, which stood in place from 1880-1960 and imposed a series of punishments on African Americans for “consorting with members of another race” by requiring segregated bathrooms, busses, schools, and the separation of many other social services (“Jim Crow Laws”). Though these laws varied from state to state, they systematically provided greater opportunities for whites, especially in the South where the laws were more stringent. These laws, which often assured that whites would receive far superior services such as schools and public facilities ultimately “widened the gap between the resources available to whites and those available to the aggrieved racial communities” (Lipsitz 5).
While white supported politicians attempted to bar blacks from utilizing their rights from a policy-oriented standpoint, a series of newly established white supremacist groups in the American South were simultaneously working to employ tactics of fear and violence as a means of suppressing black power. Though the Ku Klux Klan–undoubtedly one of the most well known white supremacists organizations in the United States–was founded in 1865 for “social and entertainment reasons by young men who were rather bored,” the self proclaimed “sons of light” quickly saw their secret society as a means of maintaining supremacy over the newly freed black population (Dobratz & Shanks-Meile 35). This first coming of the Klan employed a hooded, ghostly costume and engaged in night-rides, beatings, and even murders to frighten the black population into complacency. Even from its earliest stages, the Klan was closely aligned with elite, white political figures, calling on General Nathan Bedford Forest, a famous Confederate cavalry leader, and General Albert Pike, a well-known officer for leadership. (Dobratz & Shanks-Meile 36).
The collective effects of the Klan and other political tactics that sought to keep blacks intimidated and thus out of the voting booths significantly stripped the power that African Americans had gained in the Fifteenth Amendment. In 1875, just five years after African Americans gained the right to vote, eight members of 44th Congress were black. However, after years of intimidation, which led to dwindling numbers, not a single black representative appeared in the 50th Congress of 1887 (Taylor). As a result of the threats and violence the Klan enacted, white power was largely restored to many areas of the South. The white dominance achieved by the use of the terror tactics of the 1870’s made the need for a prevalent anti-black society as the Ku Klux Klan to diminish accordingly (“Ku Klux Klan”).
Though the turn of the century was marked by a slight decrease in white supremacist activities, the second surge of the Klan was thanks in a large part to the increasing influence of mass media and its pro-Klan message. According to historians Betty Dobratz and Stephanie Shanks-Meile, the Klan’s following resurged largely as a result of the film The Birth of a Nation (37). Many considered the motion picture, which presented the Klan as influential in “saving” the South and preserving the southern white identity, “the spark which helped ignite the flame of the Klan in the 1920’s” (Dobratz & Shanks-Meile 37). Mass media and the dissemination of an anti-black, pro-Klan message was therefore a pivotal factor in building the ranks of the white supremacist organization in the early part of the twentieth century. When looking at white supremacy, it is important to note that the upswings in hate group enrollment correspond with both increased rights for blacks, as in the case of the first wave, and increased dissemination of a racist message, as seen in the second.
As the second wave of the Klan spread upward from the South to include greater membership, so too did the organization’s influence align more closely with prominent political figures. In their text “White Power, White Pride!” The White Supremacist Movement in the United States, Betty Dobratz and Stephanie Shanks-Meile reference a study conducted by John Zerzan that estimated Klan membership in the second wave included between two and eight million Americans (39). Perhaps equally surprising, Dobratz and Shanks-Meile note that Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was a KKK member and even President Warren Harding was initiated into the Klan at a ceremony in the White House’s Green Room (39). Staying true to the pattern laid out in the first wave, white supremacy quickly found a way into the political structures of the United States.
When trying to understand why millions of Americans would flock to the Klan during its second rising in the 1920’s, it is necessary to look closely at who, exactly, constituted the Klan’s leadership and following. While the vast majority of the Klan’s followers were whites of lower class or average means, “Leadership, though, historically belongs not only to more intelligent people but to those who are called, to those who have a date with destiny” (Fredrickson 172). Intelligent and capable of employing powerful rhetoric, leaders of white supremacist groups use this ideology of destiny to put an Aryan spin on the American foundation story, suggesting that the nation is “blessed by God to achieve a brilliant destiny” and thus argue that all whites must live up to their holy calling (Fredrickson 172). This mentality of being entitled to great power and God-given privilege aligned almost perfectly with the patriotic propaganda put forth by The Birth of a Nation. Therefore, the second wave also marks the first instance when Americans not living in the South or not immediately threatened by the equality of blacks in their own town could be caught up in the vigor of what might have appeared to be a patriotic message.
Taking a closer look at the demographics of Americans who considered themselves to be members of the Klan around the 1920’s only helps to reinforce the assertion that white supremacy was gaining a broader appeal. While it may be tempting to entertain the idea that all Klan members were rural, “rednecks” on the fridges of society, Dobratz and Shanks-Meile report that “Many Klan members came from urban areas, and although they were Protestant, they often were not fundamentalists…The Klan thrived in places that had a small percentage of minorities” (40). According to these historians, the second wave’s members were often motivated to join in the hope of attacking local politicians who failed to enforce the laws of Prohibition and who did not adequately fund schools. These concerns did, however, still align with a racist attitude toward minorities. “The Klan’s racism fit into the white Protestant culture of the Midwest that valued religious and racial homogeneity and distrusted outsiders” (Dobratz and Shanks-Meile 41).
In his book Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nation, Nazi Skinheads and the Rise of a New White Culture, James Ridgeway suggests that white supremacist groups actively recruited across American by winning over the favor of ministers and sympathizing with Americans about rising crime rates and the evils of alcohol (36). Klan members suggested that the white supremacist movement would be the answer to the deterioration of America’s moral society. Thus, unlike the first wave of masked night riders, the second coming of white supremacy was a movement that appealed to huge numbers of religiously minded, socially concerned white Americans. While racism was, at all times, central to of the Klan’s ideology, other, more socially acceptable messages were often placed at the forefront.
Though the Klan’s activity decreased in the years following its 1920’s surge, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s once again encouraged American citizens to support a white supremacist ideology. As was the case in the years immediately following the Civil War, it become clear that racism towards blacks and other marginalized populations was directly linked to the prospect of those populations upsetting white economic dominance. Just as the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments had promised blacks freedoms that would lead to greater economic equality, so too did the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on Brown vs. The Board of Education in Kansas make room for the possibility of greater upward mobility within the black population.
In his book Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents, Waldo E. Martin Jr. highlights the effects that the decision to desegregate schools would have on the black population by explaining the poor conditions of segregated schools in the middle of the twentieth century. In Clarendon County, South Carolina, one of the five cases that joined the Brown vs. The Board of Education trail, Martin reports that “For the 1949-50 school term, the county spent $43 per black child and $179 per white child”(2). When looking at the unequal distribution of resources, it becomes clear that segregation barred the black community from equal socioeconomic opportunities. Ideally, the desegregation of schools would make possible more equal opportunities for blacks.
In addition to desegregation, the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s brought to the forefront leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, who sought to give African Americans the same social and economic rights available to their white counterparts. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, King stated “We’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice”(1). Though King was speaking somewhat figuratively in this case, the Civil Rights Movement, which sought for equal wages among other rights not previously afforded to blacks, was again a call for greater economic equality. Not surprisingly, the fear of white economic displacement was met with racism.
While this exploration has focused largely on the Ku Klux Klan because of its historical significance and its widely accepted position as one of the oldest and most well known white supremacist groups in America, it is important to recognize that the Civil Rights Movement marked the establishment of many other groups with similar aims. In response to the equalities called for by King and other black leaders, numerous militia-minded organizations such as The Minutemen, The John Birch Society, The American Nazi Party, The Liberty Lobby, and a series of more locally organized chapters of the KKK sprung up to oppose an increase in African American rights (Ridgeway 14-5). Bound by an anti-black, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant ideology, the third wave of white supremacy was also characterized by a higher number of localized organizations.
The relationship between white supremacists and politics also became more complicated in the third wave of white supremacy. Groups like The National State Rights Party and The American Rights Party began to employ patriotism as a means of attracting membership instead of the overtly anti-minority message used in the first and second waves. In a pamphlet described by Dobratz and Shanks-Meile, the America First Party identifies itself as, “American’s new Third Party with a platform of ACTION to protect the rights of the majority. The two major parties have become the captives of political action committees, special interest lobbies and of the organized minorities” (43). As seen in this statement, words like “white” and “black” or “immigrant” were suddenly replaced with the more political-sounding terms like “majority” and “minority.” Similarly, the pamphlet calls for “action” in all capital letters, instead of overtly inciting violence or discrimination.
The significance of the shift from overt racism in the first and second wave of white supremacy to a more politically oriented, racist rhetoric in the third is one that should not be overlooked for a number of reasons. Most notably, the alignment of white supremacist organizations with “patriotic” messages is problematic because it allows white supremacist groups to invoke national pride and love for one’s country as a means of masking the underlying call for violence and discrimination. In employing this strategic move, the groups attract Americans who might not be overtly racist, but who support the ideology of patriotism. This third wave of supremacists can be seen as even more dangerous than the previous two, largely because the racist message in embedded in the rhetoric of political propaganda.
The close alignment of racism and militia-like, nationalistic fervor continued to be present in white supremacist organizations through the 70’s and into the first decade of the twenty-second century. In the last forty years, white supremacist groups existed in largely localized chapters across much of the country and lacked the type of united membership more present in the second wave. In 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center was actively tracking 932 hate groups in the United States, many of which had white supremacist motivations. Though each group embodies a slightly different identity, in general “Racist right-wing movements have been traditionally linked to nativism, featuring hatred of immigrant groups, calls for a closing of U.S. boarders, and support of strict adherence to the Constitution in its most literal sense, shorn of equivocating amendments, as a remedy for unwanted social change” (Ridgeway 19). As was the case during the civil rights movement, white supremacist groups continued to present their racist message in alignment with conservative ideals.
In addition to emphasizing the political nature of the white supremacist campaign, Mab Segrest illustrates the conscious effort of white supremacist groups to wed their racist rhetoric with a more politically charged message when she highlights how Glenn Miller, a well known KKK leader, consciously distanced himself from the title Ku Klux Klan in order to bolster support. Miller is quoted as saying, “We want to reach the hearts and minds of Our People, and we cannot do so under the name Ku Klux Klan” because of the “un-American Jewish Controlled liberal media” (Segrest 74). Miller’s statement illustrates two important characteristics embodied by contemporary white supremacists: a conscious attempt to mask overt racism with a political message in order to appeal to a wider audience and the belief that America’s supposed liberal-leaning government and media are to blame for the degradation of the white race. Considering the ideologies supported by white supremacist organizations, it is not surprising that the hatred felt for African Americans during the early part of the white supremacy movement quickly expanded into a disapproval of immigrant and minority populations.
Given the history of white supremacy in America and the way in which contemporary hate campaigns have become increasingly subversive in their ability to align with the conservative far-Right, it is critical to look closely at what factors instigate the establishment of any new “patriotic” parties. The desire for whites to maintain power by means of preserving greater economic opportunity has acted as the basic ideology of white supremacy throughout its various stages. Even though racist rhetoric, anti-immigration politics and strictly nativist mentalities become the characteristics used to define many contemporary white supremacy groups, when looking at the way in which white supremacy has functioned throughout American history, the role of an economic investment in whiteness is ever present.
During the Reconciliation and the first years of organized white supremacy, the white lower class was systematically united by white elites whose economic power depended on the marginalization of blacks. This marginalization proved to be increasingly important during the second wave to ensure that blacks remained in segregated, impoverished communities and in lower paying positions that would guarantee the wealth remained in white hands. In the third wave, economics again came into play as the opportunity to attend desegregated schools incited fear and racism in white Americans who were previously privy to greater economic potential. Therefore, if we look back on the history of white extremist reactions to proposed equality, it becomes clear that white supremacy has often flared in the face of better schools and increased social services for minorities.
Keeping in mind the trends of minority empowerment and the white supremacist backlash, Barak Obama’s presidential campaign can be seen as an attempt to provide many lower class and minority Americans with greater access to social services. Running on a slogan of “Hope and Change,” Barack Obama promised the improvement of public schools and the implementation of universal health care. Thus Obama’s rise in political power could be seen as having the potential to actively empower members of the minority and working class on numerous levels, most notably health care and education.
When focusing on education, a statement on the president’s official website, www.BarakObama.com, asserts that “we will reform No Child Left Behind so that we are supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them” (“Education”). Though the supposed intention of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind campaign was to reward schools that showed an increased proficiency in a series of subjects as determined by standardized test scores, the campaign’s implementation has also systematically weeded out minority populations who simply cannot face the stringent tests. A recent study of more than 271,000 students conducted by Rice University found a direct link between No Child Left Behind and an increase in dropout rates. The study found that in Texas 60 percent of African-American students, 75 percent of Latino students and 80 percent of ESL students failed to graduate, largely due to what the researchers call “high-stakes, test-based accountability” (Rice University). By its nature, No Child Left Behind also bars funding to schools with scores below the goal, often schools in urban areas with larger minority populations. Thus, by implementing an educational system that does not “punish” school systems, such as those in Texas where minority populations suffer from the standardized testing, the Obama administration seeks to provide more racially and socio-economically equal educational opportunities.
The explanation for why an increased investment in minority education can be seen as jeopardizing white power lies in clear link between education and economic success later in life. A study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2002 concluded that access to education is directly correlated to future income, finding that high school dropouts earn on average almost $70,000 less than graduates with professional degrees (Cheeseman Day and Newburger 2) Since greater education often makes possible increased upward mobility, the white monopoly on high paying corporate positions also weakens when better educational opportunities are provided for minorities. A study conducted by Microquest Corporation of California found that in the late nineties 90% of management positions at Fortune 1000 companies were held by white males of European ancestry (“Shattering the Glass Ceiling” 1). Thus, by increasing equal access to education, the current administration allows for the potential of greater economic equality among races.
Similar to the economic potential that better education makes possible, access to greater health services would also systematically empower a class of people whose economic growth is at least partially linked to an inability to seek adequate care. Synthesizing the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 investigation of uninsured Americans, Daniel J. DeNoon reported that of the ethnicities surveyed, minority communities had the highest number of uninsured citizens with approximately 32% of Hispanics and 20% of African Americans uninsured. In contrast, only about 10% of non-Hispanic whites were uninsured. Not surprisingly, the difference between those with coverage and those without was also divided on socioeconomic lines, with the highest number of uninsured (24.5%) coming from households that made less than $25,000 annually (DeNoon). The data clearly illustrates that policies seeking to provide universal health care would most directly affect the minority and lower income communities.
In much the same way as education, offering health care to a previously uninsured minority population allows for increased economic potential. While examining the characteristics of those Americans without healthcare–taking into consideration current access to racially diverse care providers and those individuals most vulnerable to health problems–John Karl Scholz and Barbara Wolfe concluded in an article for the Institute of Research on Poverty that “Health and education are the building blocks for human capital. Hence, changes in these factors over time undoubtedly play an important role in the evolution of economic inequality” (Scholz and Wolfe 1). Better care leads to a higher quality of life, which is directly related to economic potential. The health care reforms laid out during Obama’s campaign, if implemented, would undoubtedly bolster the potential for upward mobility among a large number of America’s minority populations.
As was the case throughout much of American history, the prospect of increased social services for non-white communities, now coupled with the inauguration of a multi-racial president, was met with a surge in white supremacist activities. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that in 2009 alone, 363 new hate groups were founded. Of those new groups “Militias–the paramilitary arm of the Patriot movement–were a major part of the increase” (“New SPLC Report”). While the localized chapters of white supremacist hate groups are no doubt incredibly dangerous, the development of a unifying force, largely supported by white supremacist groups could prove to be of an even greater danger.
In addition to the numerous hate groups that have sprung up in the last year, the Tea Party Movement has also found its origins in the wake of Obama’s inauguration. According to “The Official Headquarters for the Tax Day Tea Party” the movement was founded when “Last year on April 15, 2009, millions of hardworking Americans stood in unison in over 800 protests around the country” (http://www.teapartypatriots.org/). The website, which is one of two that claims to be “the official” headquarters of the movement, identifies the organization’s clear mission statement as,
Tea Party Patriots, Inc. (“TPP”) is a non-partisan, non-profit social welfare organization dedicated to furthering the common good and general welfare of the people of the United States. TPP furthers this goal by educating the public and promoting the principles of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets. (http://www.teapartypatriots.org/)
These three central tenants can be seen as a common mantra of the movement, repeated in the mission statement of http://teapartypatriots.ning.com/, of the other website claiming to be the “Official Home of the American Tea Party Movement.”
While the words fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets may appear to be wholly unrelated to the racism embodied by white supremacy, an exploration into what these tenants actually mean in terms of the Tea Party’s goals proves to be slightly more problematic. On http://teapartypatriots.ning.com/, the first and most prominent piece of content is headed “REPEAL THE BILL” and features a link to a text box where members can “sign” an online petition (featuring 135,272 signatures as of April 18, 2010). By placing the most attention on the petition to repeal the Health Care Bill presented by the Obama administration, the Tea Party Movement clearly takes a negative position on the proposed increase in social services. Opposing a policy like universal health care is by no means a racist act in and of itself; however, because opposition for policies that could lead to greater upward mobility for minority communities have often anchored their roots in an economic investment in whiteness, the Tea Party’s motivations and membership deserve close investigation.
An exploration of Tea Party Movement via http://teapartypatriots.ning.com/ provides key insights into the organization’s motivations, based primarily on what information is shared and what details about the movement are virtually absent. If visitors click on the first “Sign the Petition” link in the aforementioned “REPEAL THE BILL” center column, they are taken to another window that features a montage video entitled “American People Oppose Health Care Bill, But Democrats Move Forward Anyway.” The short clips, taken primarily from Fox News are spliced together to tell a narrative of the American people protesting and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs fumbling over his words in an attempt to respond to questions from the media. The actual content of the bill is not discussed beyond mentioning that some states would receive “special deals” that were construed as being negative by a Republican commentator. Even if the visitors choose not to view the video, the “steps” for necessary action are laid out in bold font on the top of the page: “Step One: Sign the petition, Step Two: Help get 1 million signatures by sharing with everyone on your facebook pages, Step Three: Use the ‘I Signed The Petition’ image on your facebook and twitter profiles.” Aside from the described video and a link for “Repeal the Bill Bumper Stickers,” there appears to be no information on the actual content of the Bill. Only after the video finishes does the sponsorship, Republican.Senate.gov, flash across the screen and illustrate the party’s alignment with Republicans.
Though the Tea Party Patriot’s “Official Headquarters” fails to overtly give a reason for opposing universal health care, the Tea Party members whose photos are featured on the website seem to suggest a litany of more problematic causes for the opposition. The website does not allow non-members to view full photo albums, but a constant loop of thumbnail sized images on the upper left hand corner present a collage of photos, primarily made up of snapshots from rallies, head shots of members and stock “patriotic” images, such as the eagle, American flag, and Constitution. After monitoring the slide show for a short five minute interval, a viewer would observe four images of individuals shooting or holding firearms, four signs calling Obama a socialist and one image in which Obama’s face is superimposed on Hitler’s above the words “Hitler gave great speeches too.” These photos, which appear directly next to the “REPEAL THE BILL” feature, seem to suggest that the Tea Party’s opposition toward healthcare or the increase of social services is rooted in a more ideological problem with the Obama administration as a whole. However, like the website, none of the signs provide more than an unfounded critique as to why the policies are ardently opposed.
This lack of evidence to support the anti-social services position of the Tea Party makes its true motivations more difficult to identify. In his article “Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right” David Barstow emphasizes the seemingly undefined goals of the movement when he characterizes the rallies as “a platform for conservative populist discontent.” He further highlights the divergent interests of members by reporting, “Some have a basic aversion to big government, or Mr. Obama, or progressives in general” (Barstow). Barstow’s suggestion that an underpinning of the movement is against “Mr. Obama and progressives in general” proves to have a great historical significance, especially considering the role of the white upper class in the Tea Party.
In a New York Times article published on April 14, 2010, Kate Zernike and Megan Thee-Brenan shed light on the makeup of the Tea Party’s members when they reported that according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, “Tea Party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public.” The article goes on to explain that the 18% of Americans who consider themselves as Tea Party supporters, “tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45”(Zernike and Thee-Brenan). The largely white, upper middle class Tea Party following proves that those most ardently opposing health care are not the individuals who would personally benefit from the availability of equal care for the currently underserved, largely minority communities. As established above, white upper and middle class males are actually the cross-section of the population that has benefitted the most from America’s tradition of a possessive investment in whiteness.
Interestingly, of the nearly 1,600 Tea Part Members polled during the New York Times investigation in early April, “More than half say the policies of the administration favor the poor, and 25 percent think that the administration favors blacks over whites–compared with 11 percent of the general public” (Zernike and Thee-Brenan). The finding, which more clearly defines the Tea Party Movement as a whole, seems to suggest that many members are concerned about reverse racism or economic discrimination against the wealthy. This fear associated with minorities gaining greater power, which could potentially cause upper middle class whites to lose a monopoly on better education and healthcare, is one that can be traced through each of the supremacist movements since the abolition of slavery. Therefore, given the history of wealthy, white opposition to the increase of social services for minorities, it appears that the Tea Party embodies many of the same anxieties associated with losing white dominance that were present in all of the previous waves of white supremacy.
It is clear that some of the ardent fervor exhibited by white, Republican, middle class Tea Party supporters is attributed to an opposition toward a government that seeks to provide greater social services and an increased potential for equality; however, even a brief glance at any of the many Tea Party rallies that have been held in the last year illuminates a second key talking point: taxes. Highlighting the issue of taxation was clearly emphasized when the Tea Party’s unofficial spokeswomen addressed citizens on Boston Common on April 14th with “on the day before tax day, the day that the tax man’s comin’, on top of tax cuts expiring, in the town that the sons of liberty call home” (Palin). By mentioning increased taxes and the prospect of more taxation numerous times throughout the speech, Palin brought the issue of taxation to the forefront. Members of the crowd, many of whom were toting anti-taxation signs, seemed to react most strongly to Palin’s comments that the Obama administration should be “expanding freedom and opportunity for all, not the intrusive reach of government into our lives and businesses.” While Palin’s rhetoric could be seen by some as moving, a closer look at federal taxes in America suggests that the message may be rooted more deeply in political aspirations than facts about taxation under the Obama administration.
Though Congress cut individual federal taxes in 2009 by more than $173 billion shortly after President Barack Obama was elected into office, there appears to be some confusion within the Tea Party Movement about the state of taxes (Ohlemacher). In his article “The Misinformed Tea Party Movement” Forbes journalist Bruce Bartlett explored just how accurate the Tea Party’s perception of taxation in America really is. By polling Tea Party supporters at the March 16th demonstration on Capital Hill, Bartlett discovered that Tea Party Patriots “thought that federal taxes were almost three times as high as they actually are.” When the demonstrators were asked to estimate how much federal tax a person with $50,000 taxable income would pay in a year, on average the Tea Party members believed that the individual would owe about 12,700 in federal taxes, when in reality the individual would only owe about $8,700 if single and $6,700 if married and filing jointly under the Obama administration (Bartlett). This data clearly suggests that Tea Party members may at times be basing their protests more on the rhetoric of the speakers backing the movement than the tax situation itself. This observation however, raises an important question: Why would Sarah Palin and other prominent Tea Party Patriots use false information about taxation to unify and incite the American people under the guise of “patriotism” and “protection of the constitution?”
When listening to Tea Party speeches and viewing the movement’s website, it becomes clear that those speaking on behalf of organization seek to downplay any possibility that the Tea Party Movement was founded with political or personal gains in mind. The website http://www.teapartypatriots.org/ claims that “Tea Party Patriots have not endorsed candidates for public office.” While these messages seem straightforward, it is impossible to deny the vested interest that conservative Republicans have in the mobilization and unification of middle class American voters. If voters can rally around the idea that the Obama administration is responsible for the over-taxation on Americans, the benefits for Republicans running in state elections and the candidate for the 2012 presidential campaign would be undeniable. This Republican investment in the Tea Party is even reflected in Republican.Senate.gov’s creation of the abovementioned video “American People Oppose Health Care Bill, But Democrats Move Forward Anyway.” Furthermore, the Tea Party’s far-Right support can be seen through its sponsorship by the Republican, conservative news outlets Red State and Red Country.
Despite Sarah Palin’s admission at the Boston rally on April 14 that “it’s not about one individual politician; it’s about the people,” looking at the Tea Party Movement on a slightly more personal level suggests that the support of an affluent, conservative and largely white middle class is actually both politically and economically beneficial for the Party’s leadership. Though the exact monetary amount Sarah Palin has been paid to speak at Tea Party rallies has not been publically disclosed, a number of Independent Washington papers have estimated her check as being between $30,000-$100,000 for a single speech (Weigel). Judging by the numerous “Palin 2012” signs visible at the Boston rally, the former governor’s desire to remain a political fixture can be seen as strategically beneficial, should she choose to pursue a presidential nomination. The nature of the Tea Party may be touted as “for the people” however, those individuals who seem to benefit the most once again prove to be members of a white, conservative and politically elite governing class.
In addition to the physical support from citizens, the Tea Party Movement is capable of reaping a great deal of revenue from its membership. From selling T-shirts, yard signs and bumper stickers to charging members $10.00 to become part of the “1st Brigade,” the Tea Party appears to be cashing in on multiple revenue streams through its website http://www.teapartypatriots.org. Similarly, tickets to Tea Party events can range from $25 dollars to upwards of $549, as was reported to be the case when Sarah Palin spoke at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville (Helling). In addition to bolstering support for the kind of economic policies that would continue to give white upper middle class Americans education and healthcare-related advantages, the Tea Party is itself a massive money making machine.
By supporting a movement that seeks to maintain a possessive investment in whiteness, the Tea Party’s central motivations align closely with many of the ideologies that have underpinned white supremacy throughout the last two centuries. A seen in the investigation above, the vast majority of the racism imbedded in the Tea Party Movement is covert and rooted in political rhetoric. However, in addition to this covert racism, another more flagrant demonstration of racism, which harkens back to earlier white supremacist movements, has also found a platform for expression within the Tea Party. The overt and highly deliberate discrimination that has received a great deal of press as a result of the Tea Party Movement can be seen as equally, if not more dangerous than its covert economic forms, because it actively unifies a series of white supremacist groups that would otherwise be largely ignored by the media.
In small letters at the bottom of its website http://www.teapartypatriots.org/ the organization states that, “TPP does not condone and will not tolerate discrimination of any kind.” However, looking at reports from numerous Tea Party rallies suggests that many white supremacists are enjoying greater media access to disseminate their racist messages as a result of the Tea Party protests. In A Critical Analysis of White Supremacists Use of the Mass Media: The Spreading of Hate, Roger C. Aden asserts, “Media coverage, in fact, is the prime weapon in the white supremacists’ public relations fight”(56). Throughout his text, Aden illustrates how increasing recognition through greater coverage on televised media outlets and the Internet is ultimately the most central goal of contemporary white supremacists. Therefore, even though the leaders of the Tea Party Movement claim to “not tolerate” racism, the widespread coverage promised to racist groups as a result of the Tea Party protests ultimately gives white supremacists exactly what they most desire.
A Washington Post article published soon after the health care legislation protest on Capital Hill highlighted the overt racism visible in the Tea Party Movement. During the rally “racial epithets” were directed at members of the Congressional Black Caucus and one Black congressman admitted being spit upon. In addition, openly gay congressman Barney Frank was met with anti-gay chants and heckling (Kane). This type of flagrant and violent racism is undoubtedly reminiscent of the kind of threats made toward black Americans during the Civil Rights Movement on the 1960’s. Though Amy Kremer, the coordinator of the Tea Party Express bus tour stated that “I absolutely think it’s isolated” when discussing the racial outbursts displayed in Washington D.C., an investigation of rallies across the United States suggests that overt racism among Tea Party Patriots is far from only existing in a few isolated occurrences (qtd. in Pergram).
Perhaps the most flagrant and visible racism can be seen in the many discriminatory signs that have received a great deal of press at Tea Party rallies. The images featured in the Appendix each illustrate visual protests against the current president and administration that are largely rooted in racial discrimination. Figure 1, the image of Obama as a witch doctor above the phrase “Obama Care: Coming Soon to a Clinic Near You” is particularly problematic, given its resemblance to early racist cartoons. Figure 2 provides an example of an American cartoon, featured in the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, which demonstrates the way in which African Americans were represented as savage, apelike witch doctors that posed a danger to the more civilized white population. The white character in figure 2 tells the black character in tribal garb to “Just leave that cigar with me! Leave go of it you chimpanzee.” Pairing figures 1 and 2 together provides a clear indication of how the Tea Party Movement has become a nationally televised forum for the kind of derogatory representations of African Americans that were commonplace during the era of Jim Crow Laws.
The sign featured in Figure 3 also reflects the white supremacist belief that black Americans do not deserve to stake an equal claim in white America. By requesting to “‘Cap’ Congress and ‘Trade’ Obama Back to Kenya!” the sign suggests that even though the president is an American citizen, his black ethnicity makes him worthy of deportation. Similarly, the emphasis on the word “Trade” clearing insinuates that African Americans are still somehow worthy of the objectification that was placed on their race during the slave trade.
While some of the Tea Party members’ signs closely mirror propagandized images associated with African Americans that were widely employed during the early part of the twentieth century, others seem to use Obama’s race as a means of evoking fear and distrust along racial lines. Figure 4, which contains the sign “Obama’s Plan. White Slavery” articulates the way in which the greater equalization of power amongst whites and minorities by means of the healthcare bill incites a great deal of panic for the white class that is currently holding a greater economic advantage. Signs such as these are rooted in the economically discriminatory ideology of the Tea Party, but express their message by calling upon key racist images that had not recently been given mass media coverage.
The racist action of select Tea Party Members does not suggest that all individuals associated with the movement are inherently racist; however, the high frequency of racist signs and epithets present at rallies are clearly problematic because they allow previously marginalized white supremacist groups to unite on a mass media platform. In their documentary White Power USA, Rick Rowley and Jacquie Soohen went inside the white nationalist movement to investigate its expansion in the year following Obama’s inauguration. When describing the Tea Party specifically, the filmmakers characterize it as a “new populist movement that white nationalists see as their best chance in decades to cross over into mainstream American politics” (Rowley and Soohen). Because of its investment in white economic dominance, the Tea Party Movement has the potential to bring together a larger contingent of otherwise relatively isolated hate groups. Given the violence and discrimination that has historically grown out of large and unified white supremacist movements like those previously described in the second and third wave, the Tea Party Movement has the capability to recreate a climate in which racialized violence is more likely to increase.
When asked on Meet the Press about the racist slurs voiced at Washington D.C.’s Tea Party protest, Republican National Chairman Michael Steele claimed, “It’s not a danger. It’s certainly not a reflection of the movement or the Republican Party when you have idiots out there saying stupid things”(qtd. in Pergram). To agree with Mr. Steele–to believe that the presence of racism in the Tea Party Movement is not dangerous–is to ignore the long and painful history of discrimination in America. The history of white supremacy is one rooted in economics, but put into action by dynamic, media-savvy individuals who have learned to reframe their message and manipulate their image in order to make white supremacy more appealing to Americans in each decade. It would be false to assume that every person carrying a racists sign is a member of an organized hate group like the KKK; however, by reinforcing the racist messages so central to hate groups, Tea Party members are actively mainstreaming hate and supporting the most central goal of the white supremacy movement. The people that Steele refers to as “idiots” managed to bring about three violent waves of white supremacy in America, so to suggest that they can be disregarded is to dismiss the lessons of the last century and to assure more Americans that it’s “okay” to join the Tea Party’s cause.
The nature of racial discrimination has changed significantly since the days of chattel slavery, yet the root cause for the marginalization of non-white races remains the same. Regardless the surface level ideologies that have frequently been voiced as the cause of racism, American history and specifically the history of white supremacy proves that maintaining economic dominance is the key factor in upholding a possessive investment in whiteness. Though the Tea Party Movement encompasses a wide variety of people and interests, it is–at its core–a model of how the politically and economically elite members of society are still capable of mobilizing white Americans in order to maintain the dominance that could only be challenged by the rising up the country’s minorities.
On all levels, the Tea Party becomes a lucrative opportunity for far-Right, white Americans. The leaders of the movement benefit personally from six figure pay checks and politically by leveraging the supposed Obama tax increases as a means of garnering support for Republicans. Similarly, the largely white, affluent membership of the Tea Party Movement also benefits from opposing progressive social services that could allow currently underserved minorities to gain more potential for upward mobility and equality. Finally and perhaps most problematically, the Tea Party Movement provides white supremacists with a means of unification and with mass media coverage that ensures a captive audience of Americans upon which to impose their racist messages.
While many economic influences, political motivations, and historically racist attitudes toward minorities provide the basis for the Tea Party, the movement’s ability to present this possessive investment in whiteness under the guise of patriotism provides at least some explanation of why this movement continues to gain membership. To conclude her speech on Boston Common, Sarah Palin invoked the kind of violent, revolutionary rhetoric that has become so common at Tea Party rallies by saying, “Our forefathers fought and died to make this country exceptional and it’s our turn to stand up and fight for one America under God.” Though Palin’s statement may seem like straightforward “love” of her country, the implied message speaks directly to the Tea Party’s aims. The “one America under God” that “our forefathers” fought for was a white America under a Christian God. To many Americans, and especially those who have enjoyed the benefits of more than two centuries of white privilege, the Tea Party Movement is advertised as a chance to stand up and revolt against “higher” taxation and “unnecessary” social services. However, to literally “buy in” to the Tea Party is to further the history of white, socioeconomic dominance that has motivated hate groups and politicians alike since the days of the first American patriots.
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