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Is the NAACP trying to pick a fight with the Tea Party?

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 3:29 PM

Two weeks before an election, and another teachable moment is upon us. The question is why we never seem to learn.

Ginni Thomas chose this month to rekindle a two-decades-old, racially-charged spat by demanding an apology from her husband's accuser, Anita Hill. The Commonwealth of Virginia chose this fall to ship new textbooks to fourth graders falsely alleging that thousands of black soldiers fought for the Confederacy. And now we have the NAACP likening the Tea Party to the Ku Klux Klan and Lee Harvey Oswald.

This latest provocation came in a Wednesday conference call arranged by the NAACP and other civil rights groups to release a new report, "Tea Party Nationalism." The report itself, put together by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, appears to be relatively tame. But the timing -- 13 days before the midterm elections -- is suspicious, and the unveiling was at times incendiary.

The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP chapter, used his time on the conference call to liken the Tea Partyers to southern racists during Reconstruction and church bombers and assassins during the civil rights era.

"We have to have particular concern about supremacy attitudes, violence, hate language, particularly when it's rooted in notions of restoring or taking back or redeeming the country," Barber said. "Because, in the American social-historical-political psyche, we have historical markers that tell us how dangerous this is to be given legitimacy."

For instance:

"We know in 1867 when the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, laid out its political purposes, it was about restoring and re-enfranchising, if you will."

"And then when you go to the Reconstruction Era, you find this same attempt to spew this division, this hate language out.... 'We need to restore America. We need to take it back.'"

Barber moved on to 1963. "When George Wallace used this language and themes of division, very vitriolic hate language," Barber said, "Medgar Evers was killed in June of that year... We had the bombing of a church, four girls were killed at Sunday school and then we had a president assassinated."

Easy there, Reverend. It's hard to see how throwing around George Wallace and the KKK and the killings of the 60s is any better than the Tea Partyers constantly likening President Obama and the Democrats to Hitler and the Nazis, Stalin and the communists, or Che and the violent anti-Vietnam-war radicals.

As the Tea Party report documents, there are indeed ways in which white supremacists have allied themselves with the Tea Party, and racist actions at Tea Party rallies are well known. But it is also true, as NAACP chief Benjamin Jealous said at the start of the call, that "the majority of Tea Party supporters are sincere, principled people of good will."

So why, then, tar thousands if not millions of them with racism for using slogans such as "Restoring Honor" or "Take Back America" -- slogans that have used by others without a hint of racism? Could it be that the purpose was to pick a fight with the Tea Party, to rally African American voters on the eve of the election?

The NAACP and the Tea Party have been in a grudge match for some time. In July, the NAACP passed a resolution demanding that the Tea Party repudiate "racist elements" within the movement. A leader of the Tea Party Express, Mark Williams, responded to that with a racist rant directed at Jealous -- and was soon drummed out of the movement.

Jealous, in the call yesterday, gave credit for "a few good steps in the right direction," including the expulsion of Williams. In releasing the new report, he said, "we're hoping that by shining a larger spotlight we'll be seeing more action."

But tossing out these allegations before the election adds more heat than light. On the conference call, Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen tried to make the case that the Tea Party's economic policies, too, are evidence of "hate" in the ranks. "It's an economic agenda that is hateful against workers," he reasoned. "Most of the proponents that we're talking about in this report also renounce things like minimum wage and collective bargaining rights.... Whether it's glorifying slavery or glorifying a managerial system where workers have no voice, the Tea Party is a throwback."

Sorry, but that won't fly. Opposing collective bargaining may be a bad idea, but it's not the same as "glorifying slavery." It's right to call out the racial provocateurs in the Tea Party. But it's better not to answer them with more racial provocation.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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