Excerpt from presentation to the NAACP National Convention
Branch, College & Youth Councils Officers Luncheon
July 11, 2010
I am going to talk briefly about the Tea Party phenomenon and why it is important for all of our branches to educate themselves and their communities about this dire threat.
The Tea Parties are a little bit like a poison apple–with three layers. At their center is a hard-core group of over 220,000 enrolled members of five national factions, and hundreds of thousands more that we have not yet counted but are signed up only with their local Tea Parties. At the next level is a larger less defined group of a couple of million activists who go to meetings, buy the literature and attend the many local and national protests. And finally there are the Tea Party sympathizers. These are people who say they agree with what they believe are the Tea Parties’ goal. These rank at about 16% to 18% of voters, depending on which organization is doing the polling. That would mean somewhere between 17 million and 19 million adult American voters count themselves as Tea Party supporters.
This is an overwhelmingly white and solidly middle class slice of the population, slightly older and less troubled financially than the rest of us. Please, remember this point when some political pundit or the other tells you these are economically strapped Americans hitting out at scapegoats. These are not populists of any stripe. These are ultra-nationalists (or super patriots) who are defending their special pale-skinned privileges and power.
There are six national Tea Party factions: FreedomWorks Tea Party, headed up by Dick Armey–a man who needs no further introduction to this meeting. There is Tea Party Nation, which held the convention in Nashville last February where Sarah Palin of the “real Americans” spoke. There is 1776 Tea Party, the leadership of this group comes directly from the Minuteman Project, the anti-immigrant vigilante group. There is the Our COuntry Deserves Better PAC, responisble for organizing the cross-country Tea Party Express bus tours. There is also ResistNet which sponsors Tea Parties and Tea Party Patriots.
Now much of the media attention has been focused on FreedomWorks Tea Party, because it is headquartered in the DC area, and because Dick Armey was a big deal Republican. There are some who mistakenly speculate that this is an “Astroturf” phenomenon, that is a fake grassroots thing conjured up solely by Republican money and party officials.
But it is a real grass roots problem for us, and Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks Tea Party is not one of the larger Tea Party groups. ResistNet and Tea Party Patriots are actually the largest of the six national factions.
The Tea Parties are not just about taxes and budgets. They are against everything we are for, beginning with President Barack Obama. From health care reform to immigration reform, from a jobs program to unemployment benefits to union check off. And, as Rand Paul the Republican candidate from Kentucky has shown us, they are also against federal civil rights legislation.
Indeed, major sections of the Tea Party movement are opposed to the Fourteenth Amendment and equality before the law (because the oppose birth-right citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants). And some–the followers of Texas Cong. Ron Paul among them–are even opposed to the Seventeenth Amendment and the direct election of United States Senators.
Now when polling was first started on the Tea Parties, one California poll showed that people of color were less likely than white people to know much about the Tea Parties. That was only natural, since the Tea Parties were recruiting at gun shows not at African American barbershops.
Now that the spitting, and name calling on Capitol Hill has occurred, we all know more about this problem. Nevertheless, there is much more to learn.
The Tea Parties say they want to “Take This Country Back.” We have to ask, from whom do they want to take the country away? Who do they want to give it to?
Our response is to say: One Nation. One Dream.
Leonard Zeskind, author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, is president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights. He is also a lifetime member of the NAACP.