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NAACP watches for 'tea party' racism, stirs controversy

By Krissah Thompson
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 1:36 PM

NAACP leaders have a message for the members of the tea party movement: We're watching you.

The civil rights group has partnered with three liberal media Web sites to form a "tea party tracker" intent on monitoring "racism and other forms of extremism" within the tea party movement.

The online project, which was developed and branded by the NAACP's new media staff, has already drawn strong criticism from tea party supporters, who have said repeatedly that racism plays no role in their movement.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, said the project was started because NAACP leaders kept hearing from its members that they were seeing racist signs, T-shirts and commentary coming from the tea party movement.

"The site is set up to be utilized as a tool to track activities as they come up," Shelton said. "It is in some ways consistent with the kind of tracking that has been done of other extremist entities. I do not want to suggest that the tea party is a hate group, but there are some disturbing elements within."

The conservative Web site Daily Caller first reported the story about the site, which features a blog, breaking news section and the tagline "a watched pot never boils."

Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for Freedomworks - which supports many tea party groups - called the ongoing conversation about racism and the tea party frustrating.

Steinhauser said liberal groups don't hold themselves to as strict a standard. For example, he said, at antiwar rallies during the Bush administration there were signs showing communist decals and supporting communist leaders Fidel Castro and Kim Jong Il.

"There's such a different standard we're held to," Steinhauser said. "Both sides have to self-police. We should all hold ourselves accountable."

The tea party tracker site is aggregating stories from Think Progress, Media Matters for America and New Left Media - which all promote liberal ideas, while criticizing conservatives and Republicans.

The tracker's launch comes a month and a half after NAACP members voted overwhelmingly to condemn "racist elements" within the tea party. Members of the conservative movement responded by saying that the civil rights group was "attempting to silence" the tea party with "inflammatory name-calling."

Conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart said the NAACP's resolution was the instigation for his release of a selectively edited video that made it appear that federal agriculture official Shirley Sherrod had discriminated against a white farmer. Sherrod was fired and condemned by the NAACP before the full video was released, which showed that Sherrod had actually helped the farmer and was telling a story of racial redemption. President Obama and NAACP officials apologized to Sherrod, who said she was targeted because the NAACP had called out the tea party.

(Coverage of Shirley Sherrod controversy)

That episode was embarrassing for the NAACP but has not stopped what it has said is an effort to hold the tea party movement accountable for the actions of its members.

Faiz Shakir, editor in chief of Think Progress, said he was glad to support the NAACP's site because he has already been sending staff members out to conduct interviews at tea party events. NAACP staffers will cull from that reporting for its site - along with any information that comes from the NAACP's 2,200 chapters. "I think the NAACP felt like it needed to justify its stance," Shakir said, referring to the group's resolution about racism within the tea party. "One of the things it is trying to do is note instances where there is great intolerance projected by the tea party."

A few weeks ago, NAACP leaders approached Media Matters about using its tea party-related posts, said Ari Rabin-Havt, vice president of research and communications for Media Matters. "We appreciate the role that they're playing in aggregating this content," Rabin-Havt said. "Anyone who wants to spread our content, we're more than happy to let to let them use it."

So far the tracker site has posted links related to conservative commentator Glenn Beck's "restoring honor" rally last weekend, including a picture of a man wearing a T-shirt that reads: "Blacks own Slaves in Mauritania, Sudan, Niger and Haiti." NAACP has also posted a slideshow of photos it says are of offensive signs displayed at tea party rallies.

Steinhauser said his biggest concern about the tracker site is that "a lot of the signs that are going to end up on this site are going to be from left-wing groups infiltrating these rallies. It's so clear that they are holding up signs to make us to look bad. It serves their purpose to do that."

Shelton said the NAACP will not post photos or video that has been altered. He noted that after the NAACP's resolution, the National Tea Party Federation expelled vocal supporter Mark Williams, who had posted a letter about slavery that was derogatory of African Americans and the NAACP.

"We have been very heartened to see that there have been some tea party entities that have said they do not desire to have those racially inflammatory signs and T-shirts," Shelton said. "As we have always believed, there are some components of the tea party that are very much in tune with our democratic values, and they are actively and politically engaged - which the NAACP supports."

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