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Racism, the NAACP and the Tea Party Movement

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

The NAACP was doing its job when it accused the Tea Party movement of harboring “racist elements,” but it didn’t necessarily go about it in the most productive way.

All it took was for supporters of the Tea Party movement like Sarah Palin to write, “All decent Americans abhor racism,” and that with the election of Barack Obama we became a “post-racial” society, and the NAACP’s charge was soundly “refudiated.” Or, as Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell put it to Candy Crowley on CNN on Sunday, he’s “got better things to do” than weigh in on the debate. He was elected to deal with real problems, not problems made up in people’s heads. Case closed.

If one has decided not to see something, one won’t see it. (And to be sure, if one has decided to see something, one will always see it. That’s a stalemate.)

I think the NAACP ought to consider the possibility that the residuum of racism that exist today are more thoughts of omission than acts of commission. Racism is a very different beast today than it was on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation, or on the eve of the Civil Rights Act. Indeed, it is so difficult to detect and even harder to eradicate precisely because it is no longer hidden behind a white conical hood.

Because our standard for what counts as “post-racialism” has gone up with each civil rights milestone, the NAACP should realize that as the old in-your-face racism is gone, so too should the old confrontational techniques of accusation and litigation. Unconscious racism can only be taught and remedied by explanation, not declamation.

To understand unconscious racism, consider the case of Mark Williams of the Tea Party Express, who was expelled by the Tea Party Federation, an organization that seeks to represent the movement as a whole when Williams posted a fictional letter to Abraham Lincoln, saying “We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don’t cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards.”

The stridently mocking tone of this letter belied a breezy assumption that any and everyone could see that this was a letter written in satire. Sure it was. But if that was William’s subjective excuse, it would also be his objective crime. Williams did not stop to consider that it is so much easier to tell a joke than to be the butt of one. Here’s a bully telling the bullied to get over it.

If we don’t want to call this indifference “unconscious racism,” we can certainly call it bad citizenship because it is a failure to consider the grievances of a group of fellow-Americans. Isn’t this exactly what we were faulting our British cousins for doing in 1776?

Most of us, Tea Partiers or not, care about our taxes, our jobs, and our children. It takes a lot of energy and civic mindedness to worry about someone else’s taxes, job and children. (And that’s why our British cousins failed to summon the energy to care in 1776.) But the least we could do when we fail to enlarge the ambit of our sympathies is to admit that politics is a zero-sum game, and that other people have an equal right to petition for what they care about, even if we lose if they win. But that’s not a courtesy Sarah Palin, Mitch McConnell, or Mark Williams extended to the NAACP for so categorically dismissing its plea.

Even if we lived in a post-racial society, it is not for Sarah Palin to announce it, and it is certainly not Mark Williams’ place to tell African Americans to get over his joke. But the NAACP should also bear in mind that whatever we call this presumptuousness – unconscious racism or indifference – it is bad citizenship precipitated, in part, by the NAACP’s excessive focus on accusation, and not also education. If we want every American to learn to walk around in another person’s shoes, we should invite them to try each other’s shoes, not just order each other to not to step on them.

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