By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; 3:07 PM
A year ago Brandon Brice was one of the primary speakers at the tax day "tea party" rally in New York. The 27-year-old African American, who calls himself a hip-hop Republican, felt at home with the fairly diverse crowd of protesters, shouting into the microphone: "We tell the federal government that it does not tell us what to do!"
Today, Brice says he is worried about the movement.
"It's strayed away from the message of wasteful spending and Washington not listening to its constituents, and it's become more of this rally of hate," he said. "The tea party leaders should apologize on behalf of the irresponsible comments that were made, but they should also stand very firm on where we stood and where they stood in 2009."
He and other black conservatives are divided over the grass-roots movement of tea party groups that has caught fire with adherents of small government and fiscal responsibility. The tension stems from reports of racial and homophobic slurs directed against black and gay members of Congress who voted to overhaul health care, from photos circulating on the Internet of signs raised at tea party protests with slogans such as "Obama Promotes White Slavery," and the exhortation of a speaker at the group's convention that voters should be subject to literacy tests.
The debate ratcheted up this week as two prominent black conservatives, Thomas Sowell and Ward Connerly, decried accusations of tea party racism. Connerly defended the movement and wrote in a National Review column that "race is the engine that drives the political Left."
"In the courtrooms, on college campuses, and, most especially, in our politics, race is a central theme. Where it does not naturally rise to the surface, there are those who will manufacture and amplify it," Connerly said. "Such is the case with the claims that the 'Tea Partiers' are a bunch of racists and that many of them spat upon members of the Congressional Black Caucus. . . . I am convinced beyond any doubt that all of this is part of the strategic plan being implemented by the Left in its current campaign to remake America."
Similarly, Sowell wrote a commentary on the Web site GOPUSA cautioning Americans to "stay away from injecting race into political issues" and doubting news reports and firsthand accounts by members of Congress that tea party protesters directed racial slurs at black legislators as they walked to the Capitol to cast their votes.
"This is a serious charge -- and one deserving of some serious evidence," Sowell said. "But, despite all the media recording devices on the scene, not to mention recording devices among the crowd gathered there, nobody can come up with a single recorded sound to back up that incendiary charge. Worse yet, some people have claimed that even doubting the charge suggests that you are a racist."
Yet Lenny McAllister, a Republican commentator and author, said he has seen racism within the tea party and has confronted it -- approaching people with racially derogatory signs of President Obama and asking them to take the signs down. Like Brice, he said leaders of the movement must not ignore the issue.
"I feel like the tea party movement is at its core a good thing for America. It is a group of citizens that have not been previously involved," McAllister said. "The people are speaking up and becoming more educated on the issues, but you have fringe elements that are defining this good thing with their negative, hateful behavior."
McAllister, who has spoken at several tea party gatherings, said the movement is more diverse than news clips show. "There is this perception that these are all old, white racists and that's not the case," he said.
According to a USA Today/Gallup Poll taken last month, about 79 percent of tea party members are white and 6 percent are black, with 15 percent falling into other racial categories.
Debate about race and the tea party has also been intense among black conservatives online. Comments on the blog Booker Rising, a popular forum for blacks who follow the tenets of Booker T. Washington's conservatism, and the site Hip Hop Republican have been across the board.
Jean Howard-Hill, a moderate Republican who leads the National Republican African American Caucus, wrote that she is "not sure what's in the cup of tea."
"Any movement which cannot openly denounce racism, calling it out as wrong troubles me," she wrote. "To attack President Obama on his policy is one thing, but to do so on his race or some hysterical pretext of socialism is yet another."
Troy Rolling, vice chairman of Michigan Republican Party and secretary general for the Frederick Douglass Foundation, sees it differently. As a grass-roots coordinator, he sees only upside in the tea party activism for his state's party. "I'm exited to be working with the tea party people," he said. "Most of them are Republicans and most are energized people looking for leadership."
Asked whether he considered himself part of the tea party movement, Rolling demurred. "I consider myself a Frederick Douglass Republican," he said, referring to the black abolitionist. "I consider myself a radical from that standpoint. That says it all. I don't necessarily see myself as a tea party person."