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What the NAACP is really asking on racism within the Tea Party

For 100 years, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has been on the front line of the race debate.

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, July 15, 2010

Good for the NAACP. We need an honest conversation about the role of race and racism in the Tea Party. Thanks to a resolution passed this week at the venerable organization's national convention, we'll get it.

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The minute you say there are racist elements in the Tea Party -- reflected in signs at rallies, billboards and speeches from some of its major figures -- the pushback goes from cries of persecution to charges that those who are criticizing divisiveness are themselves the dividers.

So let's dispense with the obvious: Most of the opposition to President Obama comes from people who are against his policies, not his race. The Tea Party is motivated primarily by right-wing ideology, not by racism.

But guess what? Nothing the NAACP is saying contradicts this. Its contention is that there are clearly racist strains in the Tea Party and that the movement's leaders and the politicians who profit from its activism should denounce them plainly and unequivocally.

Here's what Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, asked of the Tea Party during a speech at the civil rights group's convention in Kansas City, Mo.: "Expel the bigots and racists in your ranks or take the responsibility for them and their actions. We will no longer allow you to hide like cowards."

The NAACP is doing what conservatives have done for decades in demanding that liberals and progressives separate themselves from left-wing extremists who trashed America, burned flags and praised foreign dictators. The racists are the Tea Party's flag-burners. It's fair to ask the democratic left to condemn extremism. It's fair to ask the same of the democratic right. (Note the small "d.")

When I reached Jealous by telephone, he went out of his way to emphasize that his group is not making a blanket charge of racism. "We have never called the Tea Party racist," he said. "We know there are black Tea Party members, and we want black people to feel comfortable taking leadership positions in all parties in this country."

But speaking of Tea Party leaders, he added: "We've seen the signs, we've heard the slurs, and all we're asking is for you to act responsibly and say there's no space for bigots in the Tea Party."

Sarah Palin struck back Tuesday on her Facebook page, declaring herself "saddened by the NAACP's claim that patriotic Americans who stand up for the United States of America's constitutional rights are somehow 'racists.' "

That, of course, is not what the NAACP is saying.

She went on to refer to "America's past racism," and identified herself with Ronald Reagan, who said it was "a legacy of evil." And then Palin brought the conversation back to herself.

"Having been on the receiving end of a similar spurious charge of racism," she said, "I know how Tea Party Americans feel to be falsely accused."


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