Commentary: Fears of tea partiers go beyond Obama's race

The Miami HeraldMarch 2, 2010 

A few words on the meaning of tea. They are occasioned by a recent commentary from Keith Olbermann of MSNBC. The commentary — you can find it on YouTube — scores the tea party movement as the outcry of people who haven't yet made peace with the fact that their president is black.

Everything else, said Olbermann, is euphemism. Taxes? Socialism? Budget deficit? No, he argued, when you strip away the pretenses and rationalizations, "it's still racism," and they hate the president only because he is black.

One is reminded of the 2008 campaign in which many of Barack Obama's opponents insisted people only supported him because he's black.

It was an offensive claim, in that it assumed black was black was black and that people were so imbecilic that skin color — alone and of itself — was sufficient to win their votes. As if you could sub in rapper Flavor Flav and they would not care.

The truth, it always seemed to me, was more nuanced. People liked Obama's policies, his eloquence, and his fierce intelligence and the fact that he was black, that his election would turn history on its ear, was a desirable bonus, but only that — icing on the cake, but not the cake itself.

I submit that a rough inverse of that dynamic now helps define the tea party movement.

Ask yourself: would we even be having this discussion if Condoleezza Rice were president? If Rice, Republican stalwart, conservative icon, and black woman were chief executive, would the first pot of tea ever have been brewed?

One suspects the average tea party participant would tell you emphatically, "no," and that this "no" serves as his personal shield against charges of racism. How can I be racist, he would demand, when I know in my heart that I would've supported Condi to the max?

If you concede him that, then you have to ask yourself what it does to Olbermann's contention that racism is the whole raison d'etre of the movement.

The answer leads us back again to nuance, albeit in mirror image. The tea party people distrust Obama's policies, his eloquence, his fierce intelligence and the fact that he is black then becomes the final straw, the difference maker and deal breaker. To put that another way: I doubt most of the tea partiers hate Obama strictly because he is black, but it sure doesn't help.

My point is not that Olbermann's argument is wrong but, rather, that it is incomplete.

Yes, race is obviously a component, and a major component at that, of the reaction against the president. The recurring use of racist imagery and language, the attendance at tea party events of a racist group like the so-called Council of Conservative Citizens, settles that definitively.

But ultimately, people seem moved by something even bigger than race. This is race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, culture, and the fact that those who have always been on the right side, the power-wielding side, of one or more of those equations, now face the realization that their days of dominance are numbered.

There is a poignancy to their responsive fury because one senses that the nether side of it is a choking fear. We are witness to the birth cries of a new America and for every one of us who embraces and celebrates that, who looks forward to the opportunity and inclusiveness it promises, there is another who grapples with a crippling sense of dislocation and loss, who wonders who and what she will be in the nation now being born.

One hopes they will find answers that satisfy them because the change they fear will not be turned back. No one ever volunteers to return to the rear of the bus.

So for all the frustration the tea party movement engenders among the rest of us, one also feels a certain pity for people like the woman last year who cried, plaintively, that she wanted her country back.

As if she didn't realize that it is already, irrevocably, gone.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service