So it turns out that, contrary to what I argued in this space a few weeks back, racism is not "a major component" of the so-called tea party movement. I am informed of this by dozens of tea party activists indignant and insulted that I would even suggest such a thing.
In other news tea party protesters called John Lewis a "nigger" the other day in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.
For the record, Lewis wasn't their only target.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver was spat upon.
Rep. Barney Frank, who is gay, was called "faggot."
But it is Lewis' involvement that gives the Saturday incident its bittersweet resonance. The 70-year-old representative from Georgia is, after all, among the last living icons of the Civil Rights Movement. Or, as Lewis himself put it, "I've faced this before."
Indeed. He faced it in Nashville in 1960 when he was locked inside a whites-only fast-food restaurant and gassed by a fumigation machine for ordering a hamburger.
He faced it in Birmingham in 1961 when a group of Freedom Riders was attacked and he was knocked unconscious for riding a Greyhound bus.
Most famously, he faced it on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma 45 years ago this month when his skull was fractured by Alabama state troopers who charged a group of demonstrators seeking their right to vote.
In the very arc of his life, Lewis provides a yardstick for measuring American progress. The fact that he rose from that bridge to become a member of Congress says something about this country. But the fact that people demonstrating against health care reform chose to chant at him, "Kill the bill, nigger!" well, that says something, too.
Which is why tea party leaders have spent much of the last few days spinning the incident, deflecting renewed suggestions that their stated fears — socialism, communism, liberalism — are just proxies for the one fear most of them no longer dare speak. Some even faxed the McClatchy news bureau in Washington to suggest, without offering a shred of evidence, that the episode was sparked by Democratic plants within the crowd.
Amy Kremer, coordinator of the Tea Party Express, went on Fox News to dismiss what she called an "isolated" incident. Your first instinct may be to cede the benefit of the doubt on that one. It seems unfair to tar nine reasonable people with the hateful behavior of one lunatic.
But ask yourself: When is the last time organizers of protests on other hot-button issues -- say, abortion rights or globalization -- had to apologize for "isolated incidents" like these?
Moreover, given how often tea party leaders have been forced to disavow hateful signs and slogans and even the presence of organized white supremacist groups in their midst, is it really fair to use the word "isolated"?
Is there not a rottenness here? And is not the unwillingness to call that rottenness by name part and parcel of the reason it endures?
No, my argument is emphatically not that every American who opposes health care reform is a closet Klansman. Certainly, people can have earnest and honest disagreements about that.
But by the same token, as these "isolated" incidents mount, as the venom and the vitriol increase to the point where even proxy words no longer suffice, it insults intelligence to deny that race is in the mix.
Not that the denial surprises.
Often we tell ourselves lies to spare ourselves truths. Had you asked them, the people who locked John Lewis inside that restaurant, the ones who mauled him at that bus station and smashed him down on that bridge, would not have said they acted from a rottenness within.
No, like the ones who called him "nigger" half a century later, they would have told you they were good people fighting for principle, trying to save this country from the liberals, the socialists and the communists.
They would not have said they were racists. Racists never do.
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.