In a lot of ways, I could be a Tea Party recruit.
I'm a middle-class guy who grumbles every time I pay my mortgage. I'm a fan of paying state and local taxes for things I can see — traffic lights and libraries — and annoyed by federal income taxes that seem to get spent on things that I don't really want or hope that I'll never have to use.
I'm still skeptical of President Barack Obama's health care plan. My car radio is always tuned to talk radio. And any time a retail clerk, nightclub bouncer or customs officer asks me for ID, I feel like handing them my pocket copy of the Constitution that I carry at all times. Seriously. I switched my voter registration over to ''unaffiliated'' years ago and haven't looked back.
But mostly, I could be a potential tea partier because I like to complain — and I really enjoy a frothy, cathartic, nonviolent uprising. I don't cross picket lines — not because I'm especially pro-union, but because I'm pro-protest. As someone who spent his college days marching outside of the provost's office, when I see a Tea Party rally on TV, I think to myself, ''I want in.''
I pretty much agree with the consensus of my colleagues at The Root that the NAACP wasted its time and energy this week passing a resolution challenging Tea Party racism. As Cord Jefferson writes, the NAACP is ''ill-advisedly … leveling hefty charges of bigotry against the nebulously connected outposts of a crypto-political party.'' And as Sophia Nelson notes, the NAACP's focus on Tea Party racism ''may miss the larger issues of why the Tea Party exists in the first place.''
Polls consistently show that the Tea Party demographic is older, whiter and more male than the nation as a whole — the ''NASCAR dads'' of old. It's probably not a stretch to say that racists are well-represented in its ranks, but there are bigoted Democrats, Republicans and independents, too.
So if the Tea Party's beef is with big government and not the black guy running it, fine. But if they want real political credibility, they have to deal with their biggest problem. It's not racism; it's hypocrisy.
Before they were known as tea partiers, this is the same crowd that brought down George W. Bush's 2007 immigration reform initiative. On that one issue, they've remained consistent. But on nearly every other major issue — war, budget deficits, Medicare Part D, financial regulation — they stayed mum during the Bush years but now are going after Obama with a vengeance.
Presumably, Obama's blackness isn't the reason for the shift. Yet since Obama only modified, but didn't fundamentally alter, Bush's TARP policy or Afghanistan policy, and came into office with a stimulus package that his congressional opponents merely wanted to shrink but didn't actually oppose, Obama's Tea Party critics have opened themselves to charges of a double standard. They won't live down the racism rap until their political shift is better explained.
At the same time Sarah Palin was taking the NAACP to task for the suggestion that tea partiers opposed Obama for being ''half white or half black'' and calling on Obama to ''refudiate'' the NAACP, an Iowa Tea Party group was taking down one of its billboards that pictured Obama alongside Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler. While it's not per se racist to draw a direct comparison between one's own duly elected president and the most nefarious despots of the 20th century, it does fall into that ''things that make you go 'hmm?' '' category. It's so absurd that it invites speculation about Tea Party motives, and makes them that much harder for people like Palin to defend.
There's plenty of real criticism to be directed toward Obama. If all tea partiers want is lower taxes and spending cuts, they should just say that — instead of trying to tag the president as a ''socialist'' who's ''taking away their freedom.'' These amped-up cheap shots are what's keeping the uprising, however formidable, from becoming a mature political movement.
He railed against government-backed debt relief and got the reaction he wanted, asking: ''How many of you want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage?'' What he never asked was if they wanted the government to stand by while mortgages dragged banks, markets and everyone's 401(k) under with them. Even at its genesis, the party was plagued with ''tea-pocrisy.''
Tea partiers are fond of resorting to the ''some of my best guest speakers are black'' defense. But the fact that there are people of color in their ranks doesn't prove they're not racist, just as posters with Obama dressed up like Hitler don't prove that they are.
For now, the NAACP should get out of the Tea Party-condemnation business, and the Tea Party should spend some time figuring out why, if they're not racist, so many people think they are.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.