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Why can't black Americans have a tea party movement of our own?

By Sophia A. Nelson
Sunday, July 18, 2010; B02

I have never participated in a "tea party" demonstration or rally. Nor do I think I ever will.

The reason is simple: I am black and I am proud and no self-respecting black American would ever openly join that conservative movement or support its goals. Right?

I'm exaggerating a bit, but really I'm just channeling a debate that erupted last week. At its annual convention in St. Louis, the NAACP passed a resolution denouncing the "racist element" within the tea party movement. "We don't have a problem with the tea party's existence," explained President Benjamin Jealous. "We have an issue with their acceptance and welcoming of white supremacists into their organizations."

Sarah Palin, the highest-profile tea party supporter, wrote on her Facebook page last week that "the charge that tea party Americans judge people by the color of their skin is false, appalling and is a regressive and diversionary tactic to change the subject at hand."

The whole discussion is a prime example of how we have, once again, become a very polarized nation, both politically and racially.

I'm supposed to be on the NAACP's side of this argument. I am a member of the nation's oldest black sorority and the founder of a national organization that focuses on professional black women. And I have a book coming out early next year on the unique challenges facing college-educated black women in the United States. I have a lot to lose by lining up with the wrong crowd: I could be pegged an Uncle Tom or a sellout. And so I have been fearful and silent. But I am increasingly uncomfortable staying quiet.

The fact is that I support many of the core goals of the tea party movement, not as a black American -- but as an American. Let me be very clear about what I agree with and what I find intolerable. I do not support those who hate my president because he is a black man -- and that kind of hatred is often displayed on racially charged and denigrating signs at tea party rallies. I do not support those who spew racial venom, especially when incendiary words come from leaders within the movement, as they did last week from Mark Williams, national spokesman for the Tea Party Express. And I abhor and reject anyone who would spit upon or yell racial epithets at an esteemed public servant such as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and other black members of Congress, as tea party supporters reportedly have done.

But that visceral hatred is not the entirety of the movement. I admire the principle of protesting peaceably against your government. I, too, am fed up by vast unemployment, underemployment, and making do with smaller paychecks and increasingly burdensome taxes. Like many protesters, I agree that the government has gotten too large and has a say over too much of our lives. I think that our nation's immigration laws should be enforced most vigorously. And I agree that capitalism and a strong national defense are the best ways for this great country to continue to thrive, defeat terrorism and lead as the world's sole superpower.

These are sentiments that many of my black friends, neighbors and family members share. Although I may be virtually alone among my black peers in saying this publicly, I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, only 77 percent of people who identified as members of the tea party described themselves as white. And talking to my friends -- fellow black professionals -- I hear the same kinds of things: Our taxes are too high, I had to tap into my retirement account, I could lose my home if my husband loses his job, I worry about what kind of future we are leaving our kids with all of this national debt.

Even people who disagree with me don't think that a public war of words over race is the best way forward. "How is condemning the actions of a few white fools in the tea party going to help put food on the table of unemployed black folks?" a black lawyer friend in his late 30s -- a staunch Democrat -- asked at a recent dinner party. He didn't see how an NAACP resolution was going to create jobs in cities where black men are experiencing unemployment at Great Depression levels. "The NAACP needs to come up with something better than that move," he said.

Another friend at the dinner, a black woman who works for a member of Congress, agreed. "We need to wake up. Black folks are hurting bad in this current economy, as are many whites and Hispanics. We better start finding a way to work together and stop all of this racial name-calling," she said. "We need a Rainbow Coalition tea party to set this thing off before we all end up getting dumped in the Boston Harbor."

I agree. I got lambasted last week after I wrote a commentary for the Root suggesting that blacks may want to give the tea party movement a second look on substance and perhaps even emulate it. We should, I argued, start our own tea party as a way to protest the historic loss of black wealth since 2007. This did not go over well. How could I take those racist people seriously, some asked.

Well, I don't take racists seriously. I am alarmed by the racial animus and incivility that continues to build among our citizenry -- on all sides. But such voices do not represent the entire tea party movement. And it's the movement's ideas I take seriously.

To really move forward, we don't need provocative proclamations and condemnations. We need the NAACP and the tea party leadership alike to come up with tangible solutions, ideas that lessen some of the economic and social pain we are all experiencing.

So why can't black Americans have a tea party movement of our own? That is, why can't we get energized by politicians and proposals that would put people back to work and reduce the burden of taxes? I am all for social programs that feed and help people in rough times, but we need to do more than keep heads above water.

No community is more in need of this message than the black community. It's too bad that the bigots and the bad actors in the tea party movement have drowned out the substance of a message we all should hear.

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributor to the Root and BET. She is the author of the forthcoming book "Black. Female. Accomplished. Redefined."

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