During the turbulent 1960s and '70s, segregationists like Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Boston anti-busing rabble-rouser Louise Day Hicks whipped up what was then known as "the White Backlash." It was nothing less than an all-out effort to use mob rule to roll back the gains of the civil rights movement and drive blacks back into second-class citizenship. It was a tactic that propelled Richard Nixon and, later, Ronald Reagan, to the presidency.
And now, 50 years later, we're going through what Yogi Berra might call déjà vu all over again. Or maybe it's a true-life version of Ground Hog Day. But whatever you call it, we've seen this horror movie before — call it White Backlash Part Deux. The Tea Party is no prettier this time around than it was in its previous incarnations. If Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry ever makes it to the White House, the backlash will deserve much of the blame.
That's the gloomy conclusion I reached this week after reading a portrait of the Tea Party movement drawn by political scientists David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam, authors of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, Campbell and Putnam confirm what many of us already knew and were deeply troubled about: Rather then being something new and spontaneous, the Tea Party is just the White Backlash gussied up in a tricornered hat, waving a flag reading, "Don't Tread on Me."
Despite the prominent presence of token African Americans like presidential candidate Herman Cain, Campbell and Putnam found, Tea Partiers are "overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do." Many of them are long-term hard-core GOP activists whose top priority is for their brand of evangelical Christianity to play a prominent role in politics.
They're the same old Bible-thumping, gun-toting, anti-government, racially resentful crowd who made Wallace a national political figure and helped Hicks turn Boston into a racial battlefield. It was their defection to the Republican Party back in the day that laid the basis for the nasty tone of our present-day racial politics, in which conservatism is equated with opposition to black equality. Their hostility to blacks predates Obama's ascent to the White House but was renewed and strengthened by it.
Don't take my word for it. Writes Joan Walsh at Salon, "These are the same people who've been fighting the Democratic Party since the days of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the beginning of the War on Poverty, almost 50 years ago. They associate those long overdue social reforms with giving folks, mainly black people, something they don't deserve. I sometimes think just calling them racist against our black president obscures the depths of their hatred for Democrats, period."
The Tea Party's leaders, of course, deny that racial bigotry has anything to do with their movement — just as Perry denies that his loudmouthed campaign to restore state sovereignty has anything to do with the anti-black states' rights movement of the past. Indeed, black Tea Party favorite Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) had the nerve to compare himself favorably to legendary freedom fighter Harriet Tubman.
I grant that the Tea Party's grievances go beyond racism to legitimate differences of opinion about taxes and government spending. But that doesn't explain why Perry feels comfortable insinuating that Obama's lack of military service suggests that he does not love America the way the Texas governor does.
Our first black president couldn't be more different from Perry, who, in his book Fed Up, describes himself as "the kind of guy who goes jogging in the morning, packing a Ruger .380 with laser sights and loaded with hollow-point bullets, and shoots a coyote that is threatening his daughter's dog."
When I read that kind of self-congratulatory chest-thumping, when I hear Perry sneering that the chairman of the Federal Reserve should get "ugly" treatment for his potentially "treasonous" conduct of monetary policy, or that global climate change is a hoax cooked up by scheming scientists, the rhetoric is all too familiar.
It's the voice of George Wallace, inveighing against "pointy-headed intellectuals," and Nixon's hatchet man Spiro T. Agnew denouncing the "nattering nabobs of negativism."
This isn't how you have a reasoned debate over serious national problems. This is how you stir up a mob.
Jack White, a frequent contributor to The Root, is a longtime observer of national politics.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.