The CPAC Race 'Chaos' Had a Silver Lining

Poster for a Tea Party group participating in race panel (David Swerdlick)
Poster for a Tea Party group participating in race panel (David Swerdlick)

(The Root) — Before you call me crazy for trying to find the silver lining in the storm clouds that hovered over the "Race Card" panel last Friday at CPAC, keep one thing in mind.


I was there.

And it definitely was, as first covered by Talking Points Memo's Benjy Sarlin, a "shouting match" that had its share of tense moments and was met with "dropped jaws," as reported by the Daily Beast's Caitlin Dickson. But it also wasn't quite the race-baiting free-for-all that it started to sound like after some of the secondhand coverage.

Still, you could also see it as a baby step for a small group of activists who showed up — in theory, at least — to hear how to "Trump the Race Card: Are You Tired of Being Called a Racist When You Know You're Not One?" — and instead got a firsthand lesson in why so many Americans feel there's a not-so-subtle racial undertone in contemporary conservative politics. When confronted with an audience member whose views could be described as white separatist, one or two people clapped approvingly and a few more registered only surprise — but a lot of the Tea Partiers tried to shut him down and took exception to his comments. As Sarlin wrote in a follow-up on Monday, the outburst was met with "a shocked response from many attendees — not applause or cheers."

In a strange way, maybe that's a sign of progress.

By now you've seen the video with KCarl Smith, creator of the Frederick Douglass Republicans, who gave a talk about the "four life-affirming values" of Douglass (respect for life, respect for the Constitution, belief in limited government and individual responsibility). Smith — who talked to me last year at CPAC — gives a riveting presentation, but he doesn't really address the bread-and-butter challenge facing Republicans: that in 2012, 93 percent of black voters, 71 percent of Latinos and 73 percent of Asian Americans voted for President Barack Obama.

When he was wrapping up, Smith was engaged by Scott Terry about "young, white Southern males" being "systematically disenfranchised":

Terry suggested that Douglass, the famed abolitionist and former slave, should have been grateful for "food and shelter" from his former master, and then made the equally jarring statement that in contrast to Douglass' appeal for cultural integration, he preferred Booker T. Washington's suggestion (made in 1895) that blacks and whites "be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."


And although it's muffled, you immediately hear the reaction from the rest of the crowd.

There's a general surprise, and even a few notes of applause. But it seemed to me that there were more attendees who were alarmed by Terry and his associate, Matthew Heimbach (an organizer of the White Students Union at Towson University). When it was over, the debate continued in the hallway, with one woman angrily wagging a finger in Terry's face and shouting at him. Clearly, not everyone there was interested in being associated with an apologist for slavery.


One Pennsylvania Tea Partier, Monica Morrill, almost seemed to pity Terry, describing him as "slightly confused" and saying that he "deserved a strong reaction to some of his outrageous comments." She hailed Douglass' "positive and unifying" message, and then made it a point to note that Terry "is part of a fringe group that has nothing to do with the Tea Party Patriots." But she also credited Terry with being "open-minded enough to speak with Carney [Smith, brother of KCarl] afterward, and to have a civil and respectful conversation, which I think is a start."

For his part, KCarl Smith took a charitable view, saying that after all the dust settled, he tried his best to outline for Terry that Douglass influenced Booker T. Washington, and Washington's views didn't necessarily run counter to Douglass'.


Right after the exchange in the video, Terry held forth on an assortment of topics, from affirmative action to the lack of diversity in Abercrombie & Fitch ads. He called slavery "a lot more complicated of an issue than most people are willing to discuss" — then added that as a descendant of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, he's "not ready to throw all my ancestors under the bus." And if there was any doubt about his views, when asked if he thought that African Americans have the right to vote, he replied, "In Africa, they should vote all they want."

But at this meeting, Terry's view was in the (ahem) minority. And the scene was something apart from what you normally think of when you think of a Tea Party event: At the nation's premier gathering of political conservatives, a group of mostly white Tea Partiers went to a seminar led by a black Republican and found themselves face-to-face with an advocate for racial separation.


Whatever else you take away from the whole thing, the debate finally got beyond the same-old "Take your government hands off my Medicare."

Does it mean that Tea Party motives are pure? Of course not — it's a movement that's left people to draw their own conclusions about its agenda, because Tea Partiers have never adequately explained why they took to the streets to protest President Obama's "socialism" after quietly going along with the big-government program of George W. Bush: TARP, Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind and the decadelong Iraq War.


There were probably others at the event who agreed with Terry and were just too afraid to speak up. But at least as many people there were put off by Terry's remarks. It's a low bar, but one that an optimist might take as a good sign in today's polarized political environment.

And for a movement that's defined mainly not by what it's for but by its opposition to any and all things related to Obama, it was a small step toward recognition that if the Tea Party wants to be considered separate from the separatists, then — as Washington might have said — it's going to have to pull itself up by its own bootstraps.


David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter