Drawing the Line for the Tea Party
The NAACP's demand that leaders of the insurgent group confront racism in its ranks may ultimately help increase its legitimacy.
Casting Obama as a dangerous "other" -- an illegitimate usurper of the "real" America -- is, without question, related to his race. But it requires at least some subtlety to see this connection, especially for those who perpetually look for the racial smoking gun and the traditional conspiracy of robed and virulent racists to be convinced that racism is at work. (Even though the NAACP Web site provides some pictures from Tea Party rallies that are pretty clear-cut evidence.) In this sense, the NAACP's resolution comes at a time when anti-black racism has turned into a harm without perpetrators. (Whoopi Goldberg has even adamantly insisted that, despite his multiple racial tirades, Mel Gibson is not racist.) Not even video of some of these incidents is enough. Some Tea Party supporters have demanded that the NAACP provide the names of those who spat on black Congressmen or hurled racial epithets at rallies.)
The NAACP's action could be seen as a courageous, albeit imperfect, effort to end what has been the Tea Party's free ride. Receiving the benefits of a legitimate political party ("Ted is calling on the Tea Party line") requires a level of responsibility that is usually demanded by the media and by the leaders of our existing political structures. That level of accountability has thus far not been required of the Tea Party movement with any consistency -- even for the over-the-top statements in the e-mails that some supporters send out, or the literal "call to arms" that some of its adherents espouse.
Ironically, the NAACP's actions may ultimately help the Tea Party. After the initial heated rhetoric dies down, Tea Party leaders and responsible members may begin to recognize that overt displays of racism by even a small minority of its members are a serious threat to the long-term legitimacy of this group. And those interested in creating a real, accountable movement around coherent principles may increasingly take up the responsibility for calling out racism, threats of violence and extremism when they see it or hear it in their ranks.
Sherrilyn Ifill is a civil rights lawyer and professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.