Just How Racist Is the Tea Party Movement?
By Bill Berkowitz, IPS News
Posted on December 28, 2009
15 Tax Day protests as thousands rallied in a number of
cities across the country.
It continued on into the summer with raucous town hall
meetings and gun-toting anti-Barack Obama
demonstrators, and appeared to reach its apex with a
Sep. 12 march on Washington, which drew nearly 100,000
Now, however, some in the so-called Tea Party movement
are turning their attention toward becoming a force
during the 2010 congressional elections.
Several reports on the Sep. 12 event noted it was a
nearly all-white crowd and some demonstrators carried
an assortment of "homemade" anti-Obama posters,
declaring that "The Anti-Christ Is Living in the White
House", and calling the president an "Oppressive
Bloodsucking Arrogant Muslim Alien".
Despite the fact that it doesn't have a clear identity,
and serious questions about the movement's character
remain to be answered, the Tea Party movement has been
one of the most intriguing political developments of
the past year.
Is it a grassroots movement, or has it been organized
and funded by Washington-based conservative groups?
Could it be both? Is it mainly concerned with economic
issues (government spending, taxes, deficits) or are
the Christian Right's traditional social issues
(abortion, same-sex marriage) of interest to tea
Are there several -- possibly competing -- ideological
tendencies within the movement?
While tea partiers made a lot of noise this past
summer, doing their best to put the kybosh on health
care reform, is there a future for the movement?
A recent Rasmussen Poll suggests that there very well
In theoretical three-way congressional races between a
Democrat, Republican and Tea Party candidate, the Tea
Party candidate outpolled the Republican. Democrats
attracted 36 percent of the vote; the Tea Party
candidate received 23 percent, and the Republican
finished third at 18 percent, with 22 percent
(According to the Rasmussen Reports website,
"survey...respondents were asked to assume that the Tea
Party movement organized as a new political party. In
practical terms, it is unlikely that a true third-party
option would perform as well as the polling data
indicates. The rules of the election process - written
by Republicans and Democrats - provide substantial
advantages for the two established major parties.)
Interestingly enough, in an effort to build the
movement, some Tea Party organizers have taken to
"studying the grassroots training methods of the late
Saul Alinsky, the community organizer known for campus
protests in the 1960s and who inspired the structure of
Obama's presidential campaign," the
Chronicle recently reported.
Tea Party groups are also using "Tea Party: The
Documentary Film" as an organising tool. In a pre-
premiere press release, the filmmakers claimed that the
film would deal with the "allegations of racism".
And that indeed appears to be the issue that could
stymie the movement's growth.
While Tea Party events have become a safe haven for
people carrying racist anti-Obama signs, people of
color have stayed away in droves. Members of white
nationalist organizations openly participate in Tea
Party events and view the movement as a fertile
Questions about the overlap between tea partiers and
anti-immigration activists might be answered when an
immigration reform bill is taken up next year.
Are the openly-racist elements within the Tea Party
movement an aberration scorned by most Tea Party
participants as John Hawkins, who runs a website called
RightWingNews, insists, or are they more firmly
entrenched than tea partiers would care to admit?
"The tea parties themselves are made up of a diverse
bloc of different political elements, and white
nationalists have chosen to make a stand inside the tea
parties," one expert, Devin Burghart, told IPS.
For the past 17 years, Burghart has researched and
written on virtually all facets of contemporary white
nationalism. He is currently vice president of the
Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights,
which monitors and publishes on the activities of white
"The exact extent of the racist element inside the Tea
Parties is difficult to quantify, because they are not
a static phenomena, and it depends on who shows up," he
explained. "That said, it's enough of a factor to
attract the attention of a significant portion of the
white nationalist movement."
"It's not a matter of how many African-American or
Latino/a folks show up at these tea parties, it's about
the content and character of the arguments made at
them," Burghart added.
Not only have "tea partiers have turned up with overtly
racist signs and slogans" at rallies from coast to
coast, he said, but also many participants "cling to
the belief that our first African-American president is
not only un-American, he was not even born in the country".
Unfortunately, Burghart noted, "There's little evidence
to indicate that tea party leaders are doing anything
to address the racism in their ranks."
Burghart said that he was not surprised that "tea party
activists would deny their racism". After all, "racists
have been denying their racism even before pro-
secessionist bigots couched their arguments in bogus
claims about states' rights".
However, he added, "To anyone with any degree of
sensitivity to the issue, the tea parties have clearly
shown themselves to be racist, in the lineage of George
Wallace - who when he campaigned up North eschewed talk
of racial segregation in favor ranting against 'elites.'"
In an article at the Institute for Research and
Education on Human Rights' website, Leonard Zeskind,
the organisation's president and author of the recently
published "Blood and Politics: The History of White
Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream",
pointed out that the anti-Obama "opposition" contains
"many different political elements".
These include "ultra-conservative Republicans of both
the Pat Buchanan and free market variety; anti-tax Tea
Party libertarians from the Ron Paul camp; Christian
right activists intent on re-molding the country into
their kind of Kingdom; birth certificate conspiracy
theorists, anti-immigrant nativists of the armed
Minuteman and the policy wonk variety; third party
'constitutionalists'; and white nationalists of both
the citizens councils and the Stormfront national
If Tea Party activists can ferret out racists and white
nationalists from their ranks - and not become a
mouthpiece for Christian Right ideologues - it could
become a legitimate force on the
Meanwhile, a host of groups, operating under assorted
Tea Party banners, are working to influence the 2010
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-
wing groups and movements.