Currently in the midst of its annual national convention in Kansas City, the NAACP today introduced a resolution condemning racism in American Tea Parties. Though exact details are currently sketchy, The Kansas City Star reports that the resolution will ask “all people of good will to repudiate the racism of the Tea Parties, and to stand in opposition to its drive to push our country back to the pre-civil rights era.”
While my interview with Benjamin Jealous confirms that, in fact, the occasionally controversial NAACP is certainly doing important work every single day, I can’t help thinking that the significance of this resolution, not to mention its validity, remains to be seen.
While the intolerant tone of many Tea Party rallies is by now the stuff of legend, it’s not that tone with which the NAACP is taking issue; if it were, I might be in agreement. Instead, what Jealous et al. are ill-advisedly doing is leveling hefty charges of bigotry against the nebulously connected outposts of a crypto-political party. This is problematic for a few major reasons.
The first is that what constitutes a Tea Party is by and large impossible to define. Because there is no Tea Party governing body offering charters or doling out bylaws, exactly who the NAACP has in its sights is largely an unanswerable question. Is a group of 10 shut-ins in Florida a Tea Party just because they have a website? Is anyone who attends a Tea Party rally a Tea Party member? If we’re going to go around calling things racist, shouldn’t we first know exactly what those things are?
Let’s go with the easiest option and assume that we’re allowing Tea Parties and their members to self-identify. If that’s the case, then we should also take them at their word when it comes to their system of beliefs. As it stands, I’ve not been able to find a single Tea Party whose mission is to hurt people of color. The Cincinnati Tea Party says it believes “in fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.” It’s also planning a trip to a theme park in September. The North Texas Tea Party says it’s composed of “Americans who believe you should be the boss of you.” I once talked to a Tea Party member who quoted French political philsophers before telling me that the bigots aligned with his movement were "shameful." One can argue that the Tea Parties across-the-board dismissal of something like health care reform shows a lack of interest in policy that will improve the black community, but does that make them inherently racist?
Clearly the NAACP isn’t judging the Tea Parties on their stated beliefs, so on what are they judging them? Unfortunately, I think it has to be their rallies.
To anyone interested in fairness, it should be obvious why I say “unfortunately.” Again, while the tone of Tea Party gatherings is often in poor taste, to condemn the entire Tea Party movement based on what happens at Tea Party rallies is absurd. Just as it would be unreasonable to judge the recent G-20 protests in Toronto by the actions of a violent few, so too is it unreasonable to believe that every person at a Tea Party event is a hateful bigot. And because the definition of a Tea Party is still undetermined, what the NAACP is really doing with this resolution is maligning a whole burgeoning movement because of stupid signs carried by random cretins at some unofficial, semi-annual functions. In a nation in which African American AIDS rates are comparable to those in sub-Saharan Africa, this can't be the wisest use of the NAACP's time and resources.
Frankly, I disagree with nearly every policy stance I’ve read on Tea Party websites. But as someone who supports the black civil rights movement, I also shudder to think of a world in which people judge me based on the actions of the New Black Panthers.
-Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.