The numbers are in.
Thanks to a new CBS News/New York Times poll, we now have a statistical picture of the tea party movement. There are few surprises.
It turns out that not quite 20 percent of Americans are tea party supporters. They tend to be white, Republican, male, over 45 and wealthier than the rest of us. Fifty-seven percent hold a favorable opinion of George W. Bush. And where most Republicans describe themselves as "dissatisfied" with Washington, tea partiers are apt to use a different term. They say they're angry.
It is a telling word, especially in light of another survey, this one from the University of Washington's Institute For the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexuality. That poll offers strong evidence that, contrary to the denials of tea party enthusiasts, President Obama's race plays a big role in their outrage. Indeed, researchers found a significant correlation between racial resentment and tea party zeal.
Respondents were read loaded statements such as this: "It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites." Among those skeptical of the tea party, only 33 percent agreed with that statement. Among whites in general, 56 percent did. But among the tea party's most rabid followers,the number spikes to 73 percent.
As Dr. Christopher Parker, who led the study, observed via e-mail: "[I]f one believes that blacks don't try hard enough, use slavery as an excuse, and . . . have received more than they deserve (racial resentment), they are 37 percent more likely than those who don't believe this . . . to support the tea party."
Yes, he says, ideology plays a part. Yes, politics does, too. But as he put it in a follow-up conversation by phone, "once you control for partisanship, party identification and ideology, there's still a significant, robust effect for race."
Some of us needed no polling data to know this. Some of us needed only to observe the timing of the tea party's rise.
After all, if the tea partiers were truly only concerned about so-called "tyranny," they'd have started howling when President Bush claimed he need not be bound by laws with which he disagreed.
If they were truly only worried about a "socialist" takeover of private industry, they'd have yelped when he took over troubled financial institutions.
If they were truly only anxious about the budget, they've have hollered when he spent a $128 billion surplus into a $407 billion deficit.
If they were truly outraged over their income taxes, they'd have screamed at Bush first, given that their taxes are the same as when he was in office.
It is telling that they "discovered" their burning concern over these things shortly after Barack Obama came to power.
And contrary to what some in the movement would argue, it is not the case that any criticism of Obama brings charges of racism. Columnist George F. Will accuses Obama of timidity, columnist Charles Krauthammer calls certain of his policies "terminally naive," columnist Jonah Goldberg charges him with dirty politics. Yet there's been no national hue and cry accusing those conservatives of racial bias.
The reason is simple. Unlike certain tea partiers, they did not claim Obama favors white slavery. Or depict him as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose.
Or cry, "I want my country back."
For those of us trying to build a country that does not fear difference, a country where access to opportunity is not a function of skin color; for those of us seeking an America that will finally live out the true meaning of its creed, that battle cry of the tea partiers says all that need be said about the differences between them and the rest of us.
They are looking for the America that was.
We're searching for the one that ought to be.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.