Sunday, July 18, 2010

Race and the Tea Parties

Matt Bai's column today about race and the Tea Party movement seem to answer two issues that have been making the news as of late.

The first is of course, the latest round in the "Is the Tea Party racist?" meme.  The answer to that question is not a simple yes/no answer. While I think there are racists that have shown up at Tea Party rallies and while I don't think the Tea Parties are helpful to the Republican Party, I tend to think that on the whole the Tea Party is not racist.

That said, I don't always get the impression that the Tea Partiers or the wider conservative movement goes out of its way to actively welcome minorities. So, no, the Tea Party is some modern incarnation of the Klan, but it isn't Sesame Street either.

Of course, I'm also a 40 year-old African American that's never really dealt with the racist animosity that my father dealt with.  I have a feeling that if you asked my 80 year-old Dad, he would probably say that this movement is racist.

And that's what Bai is getting at in his article today.  The recent spat between the NAACP and the Tea Party might seem on the surface to be about race, but it what's really going on is an argument between two aging groups, with younger generations sitting on the sidelines.

This is how Bai describes the make up of the Tea Parties:

...the insidious presence of racism within some quarters of the movement — or, maybe more accurately in some cases, an utter indifference toward racial sensitivities — shouldn’t really surprise anyone. That’s not necessarily because a subset of these antigovernment ideologues are racist, per se, but in part because they are just plain old — at least relatively speaking. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in June, 34 percent of Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 — and 29 percent of voters 65 and older — say they agree with the movement’s philosophy; among Americans 49 and younger, that percentage drops precipitously. A New York Times/CBS News poll in April found that fully three-quarters of self-identified Tea Party advocates were older than 45, and 29 percent were older than 64.

This does not mean that there aren’t hateful 25-year-olds coming to Tea Party rallies and letting fly racial slurs. What it does mean is that a sizable percentage of the Tea Party types were born into a segregated America, many of them in the South or in the new working-class suburbs of the North, and lived through the marches and riots that punctuated the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s. Their racial attitudes, like their philosophies of governance, reflect their complicated journeys. (This is true for a lot of older, urban Democrats, too, who consider themselves liberal but whose racial commentary causes their grandchildren to recoil.)

And the NAACP is also showing its age:

White Americans of that generation are not the only ones whose longstanding views on race seem increasingly dated. The N.A.A.C.P. has over the years lost its currency among younger, more educated African-Americans, whose sense of opportunity is such that they are less convinced of their need for a traditional civil rights organization (let alone one with the word “colored” in its title). A lot of older civil rights leaders and black politicians have been frustrated with President Obama for not advancing a specific agenda for his fellow black Americans, a grievance that seems not to bother many younger African-Americans, for whom the civil rights movement is a chapter in a history text, rather than a searing memory.

Bai's article brings up a lot of thoughts about how this plays into the future of the GOP. The Tea Party and the GOP tend to overlap in members and both tend to be both white and old. While these older folks have excited the GOP and might give them a good shot at taking Congress in the fall, one has to wonder how sustainable this all can be as younger generations come to the fore. While neither the Tea Party nor the GOP is inherently racist, there has been a whole lot of indifference towards minorities (and when it comes to immigration some hostility). That's been a turnoff for minorities, but it is also a big turn off for younger whites who have grown up with diversity as a norm. I've seen a lot of young white folks, especially under the age of 30, who might be fiscally more conservative, shun the GOP because of its standoffish approach when it comes to diversity.

The GOP has a problem in the long run. While it might enjoy the energy of the Tea Party now, these aging men and women can't help the Republicans down the road. Conservatives are going to have to find ways to actively welcome minorities and the young. That will also mean creating policies that will help minority communities.

Will the GOP realize this in time? 

As I said earlier, this article answer two questions.  More on the second one later.

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