Tea party rejects racist label, but some concerns remain
Jul 17, 2010 at 2:18 AM
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Billy Roper is a write-in candidate for governor of Arkansas and an unapologetic white nationalist."I don't want non-whites in my country in any form or fashion or any status," he says.Roper also is a tea party member who says he has been gathering support for his cause by attending tea party rallies."We go to these tea parties all over the country," Roper said. "We're looking for the younger, potentially more radical people."Accusations about racism within the tea party have rumbled for a year, but they suddenly exploded last week with a resolution at the NAACP convention in Kansas City saying the party is attracting people and groups hostile to minorities.The allegations prompted irate denials from tea party supporters, and even critics make it clear that they're not accusing all tea parties or members of racism.Indeed, it's difficult to answer the racism question because the tea party is split into hundreds of shards, and the issue of racism itself depends somewhat on perceptions.Still, it's clear that some with racist agendas are trying to make inroads into the party.In several instances, tea party members with racist backgrounds such as Roper have played a role in party events. At the same time, The Kansas City Star has found, white nationalist groups are encouraging members to attend tea parties. One organization based in St. Louis is sponsoring tea parties of its own."There definitely is racism within the tea party movement," said Daryle Lamont Jenkins, an African-American and spokesman for One People's Project, a Philadelphia-based group that monitors racism. "I've seen it, and it's something they need to deal with now."The tea party absolutely rejects the racist label, for a number of reasons.Many deny outright that any incidents of racism have occurred. They point out that there are minorities in the tea party and that tea parties are endorsing minority candidates in some races.Others say racism may be occurring, but only on the fringes of a movement that is so decentralized that 69 tea parties exist in Missouri and 24 more in Kansas. Nonetheless, some in the party have tried to police incidents of racism and turn away white supremacists.Brendan Steinhauser, director of campaigns for FreedomWorks, which organizes tea parties, acknowledges that some racist groups may be trying to "glom" onto the movement. But "where we see that behavior, we're going to call them out," he said.He noted that one party in Houston helped expose a tea party leader who allegedly made a racist poster."Racism is something we find morally repugnant," Steinhauser said. "It damages the movement, and it's just not good for our image or our message."At the same time, Steinhauser downplays actual racist incidents, saying he hasn't seen any himself."Are there infiltrators coming in to try to make it look racist or extremist? Yes," he said. "Are there people that may have those kinds of views that are showing up at our events trying to be a part of the movement? Sure. But if you talk to 99.9 percent of these people, that's not what they believe."But for Leonard Zeskind, who has written a history of the white nationalist movement, the problem is obvious."There are hard-core racists brewing inside the tea party movement," said Zeskind, author of "Blood and Politics." ''They see tea parties not only as recruitment opportunities, but as vehicles to cross over into mainstream American politics."For many tea partiers, racism is in the eye of the beholder.Take Ron Wight, who stood with dozens of tea party activists at the J.C. Nichols Fountain in April, complaining about the Obama administration, its socialist agenda and being called a racist.Those like himself who complain about President Barack Obama are accused of racism, lamented the semi-retired music teacher from Lee's Summit, Mo.Then he added: "If I was a black man, I'd get down on my knees and thank God for slavery. Otherwise, I could be dying of AIDS now in Africa."Wight doesn't consider that comment to be racist."I wish slavery had never happened," he said. "But there are some black people alive today who have never suffered one day what the people who were black went through in the '40s, '50s and '60s. Has somebody said something stupid or done something stupid? Yes, there have been incidents."But with everything that has been done in this country legally and socially for the black man, it's almost like they've been given a great leg up."Signs at tea party events that have drawn criticism also have defenders.One poster says, "What's the difference between the Cleveland Zoo and the White House? The Zoo has an African Lion and the White House has a Lyin' African!"Another depicts Obama as a tribal witch doctor, wearing a headdress and a bone through his nose, and the words "Obamacare coming soon to a clinic near you."While some tea party events turn away signs that might be offensive, it's not always clear that they depict racism, some say.Another concern — even within the tea party — is the actions of some who are in leadership positions.A photo circulating on the web shows Dale Robertson, founder and president of the Houston-based TeaParty.org — also called the 1776 Tea Party — at a 2009 rally carrying a sign that said, "Congress (equals) Slave Owner, Taxpayer (equals) Niggar."In an interview, Robertson denied his sign was racist, saying someone altered the picture on the web."The original sign said 'slave,' and somebody changed it to the N-word," he said. But then he defended the use of the word."I looked the word up in Webster, and it says it means politically unrepresented," he said.Robertson also sent a fundraising e-mail that contained a picture depicting Obama as what some describe as a stereotypical black pimp with a thin mustache and wearing a zebra-striped fedora trimmed in white fur with a black feather on top.Robertson said allegations of racism in the tea party are coming from "people who have an agenda, and all they want to do is slander this movement."But some tea party groups have denounced Robertson."We do not choose to associate with people that use his type of disgusting language," the Houston Tea Party Society said in a statement issued on its website.The Tea Party Patriots also shunned Robertson."We stand firmly against any expression of racism and the kind of language and opinion expressed in his (N-word) sign," the group said.The Council of Conservative Citizens, a St. Louis-based group that promotes the preservation of the white race, has sponsored its own tea parties in some Southern states.The council's website has referred to blacks as "a retrograde species of humanity" and said non-white immigration would turn the country into a "slimy brown mass of glop."Gordon Baum, the group's founder, told The Star that the council encourages members to participate in tea parties.He described the tea party rallies as "mainly a white thing, because there's not a whole lot of blacks that participate, and the ones that do get to be speakers."That leads some groups into a bizarre hypersensitivity, he said."They have black speakers, and sometimes when they can't get one lined up, they just get some poor devil that's on their side, black guy, in the audience and drag him up on stage," he said.Some other white supremacy groups also see tea parties as recruiting grounds.Roper, a former organizer for the neo-Nazi National Alliance and now chairman of White Revolution, has been attending tea party rallies to recruit members and garner support for his 2010 write-in campaign for Arkansas governor.Roper, a member of the ResistNet.com tea party, said in an interview that he sees tea parties as a base of support.Have tea parties been receptive?"It varies," he said. "If I go to some of the larger tea parties, I'll find a few dozen people at least who are seeing the world through the same lenses I have."Roper said he was kicked out of one tea party rally by a man who said racists weren't welcome."I told him I'm not a white supremacist," Roper said. "I'm a separatist."Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke has posted a video on his website addressing tea party supporters. Duke says in the video that the majority of tea party activists "oppose affirmative action and diversity, which are nothing more than programs of racist discrimination against white people."Last November, the Council of Conservative Citizens put fliers promoting the group on cars at a tea party event in Virginia. In response, leaders of the Roanoke Tea Party publicly disavowed the council.In April, an Alabama attorney who was scheduled to speak at a tea party rally in Wausau, Wis., was asked to withdraw after it was revealed that he had a history of speaking at white supremacist events.Those are among several examples of tea parties making it clear they don't support racist views.At the same time, though, supporters want to make sure racist incidents aren't blown out of proportion."We've got to recognize that there are freaks at both ends and they will attempt to attach themselves to legitimate movements," said Woody Cozad, a former chairman of the Missouri Republican Party who has spoken at tea party events."But that does not say anything about the movement unless the movement endorses or embraces them, which the tea party has not done that I know of."Indeed, some tea partiers say they haven't seen racism at all.Lloyd Marcus, a black conservative and musician who has both spoken and entertained at tea party rallies, said he has been to 200 events and never witnessed any racist incidents."It's women, it's families, it's grandparents, it's kids," Marcus said. "The decent folks that I meet at the tea parties, to be called a racist is devastating to them."Ward Connerly, a conservative African-American who has spoken at numerous tea party events, said he has no qualms about the tea party movement."I've probably spoken at over 20 tea party events in the last three months, and I'm convinced that these folks are ordinary people who are frustrated with government," he said.Connerly acknowledged that minorities are scarce at tea party events he's attended, but he attributed it to "the attitude that minorities often have about the political process."Sometimes language differences hold back blacks and Latinos, he said, while those of Asian descent don't participate in political events unless it relates to what they see as their own identity.Many also are complaining about racism on the other side. They accuse the NAACP of failing to denounce racist incidents by African-Americans, such as voter intimidation by the New Black Panther Party during the 2008 elections."There's no room for that kind of vitriolic language in a civilized democratic society," NAACP spokesman Chris Fleming said Thursday about the voter incidents.Those who monitor hate groups are worried about racism in the tea party."There are probably close to a couple thousand of these local tea party chapters now," said Devin Burghart, vice president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which is finalizing a special report on tea parties."A number of these groups have been either thoroughly infiltrated by more hardcore folks, or at least those more hardcore folks are allowed to swim in that same ocean."As examples, Burghart cited Robertson, as well as some speakers promoted by tea parties, such as Red Beckman. Beckman adheres to the Christian Identity movement, which teaches that blacks have no souls and Jews are satanic.The racism isn't coming only from the fringe, Burghart said."This is not just a nut showing up in the audience with a crazy sign," Burghart said. "It's someone who they vetted and decided to give a platform to."Zeskind said racist tendencies may be broader within the party than even critics realize."Liberals think these are all poor, angry, working-class whites, but that's not true," said Zeskind, who helped draft the NAACP resolution. "It's a solid middle class. The belief that these are people hit by the economic downturn is a myth. It's people who have what they want and don't want it taken away. They're defending white privilege. Their slogan is 'We want our country back.' "Zeskind pointed to some of the numerous polls done in the past year on the movement.A CNN poll found that tea party supporters are better off financially and are more highly educated than the general population. Eighty percent of those identifying themselves as tea party supporters were white.According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, 52 percent of tea party supporters said that too much has been made of the problems facing blacks, compared with 28 percent of the general population.A University of Washington survey found that those who think the government has done too much for blacks are 36 percent more likely to support the tea party than those who do not.Christopher Parker, an assistant professor who directed the survey, said the results showed that the tea party is not just about politics and the size of government."The data suggests it may also be about race," Parker said.Assuming the tea party could be tainted by allegations of racism, some say leaders need to take action. But reining in the radical element can be difficult because of the tea party structure, said Joe Aistrup, a political science professor at Kansas State University."It's a loosely defined organization, and no one's in charge," Aistrup said. "Who in the tea party really runs it, and who's there to actually denounce these folks?"Keeping things under control, Aistrup said, is a balancing act."The one thing I see in these movements right now is there seems to be a very vitriolic mode of communication," he said. "You've got to have a little bit of that kind of language in order to motivate people, but if you have too much of it, then you bring in the most fringe elements."And sometimes that can lead to their collapse because those who might be called normal people don't want to be associated with something so radical."But Cozad said it's not the duty of the tea party to distance itself from racists on the fringe."The natural tendency of a movement like this is to attract a broad spectrum of people, which will, of course, include some cranks," Cozad said."The cranks, by their nature, are never satisfied. So to the extent that the tea party has become successful, they will disappoint the cranks, who will then leave the movement. That disassociation happens naturally."