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The Tea Party must purge racism from its ranks

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

That was quick. We now have proof the NAACP was right.

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When the nation's leading civil rights organization passed a resolution condemning displays of racism by Tea Party activists, leaders of the movement reacted with umbrage so thick you could cut it with a knife -- then demonstrated that the NAACP's allegation was entirely justified.

On Saturday, the National Tea Party Federation announced it had expelled one of the movement's most prominent figures -- a California blowhard named Mark Williams -- because of the outrageously racist things he had said about the NAACP. Ejected along with Williams was his whole organization, Tea Party Express, which had been a particularly active, high-profile group.

The last straw was a "satirical" letter that Williams, a former right-wing talk radio host, posted on his Web site. It was supposed to be a missive from NAACP President Ben Jealous to Abraham Lincoln, and the Tea Party Federation deemed it "clearly offensive." With good reason.

Here is one passage: "We Colored People have taken a vote and decided that we don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!"

Amazingly, it gets worse:

"Perhaps the most racist point of all in the tea parties is their demand that government 'stop raising our taxes.' That is outrageous! How will we coloreds ever get a wide-screen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn? Totally racist! The tea party expects coloreds to be productive members of society? Mr. Lincoln, you were the greatest racist ever. We had a great gig. Three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massa in the house. Please repeal the 13th and 14th Amendments and let us get back to where we belong."

That's not satire, it's hate speech. The national federation should be commended for moving quickly to cut all ties with this unreconstructed bigot. But Williams is not some obscure figure from the movement's outer fringe. He's a big player.

Tea Party Express lists as its "national sponsor" a political action committee named Our Country Deserves Better, which spent about $350,000 on Sen. Scott Brown's winning campaign in Massachusetts and is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into Nevada on behalf of GOP candidate Sharron Angle. Tea Party Express boasts on its Web site of having staged rallies featuring such speakers as Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter and one Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, better known as Joe the Plumber.

Have the rest of the movement's leaders never noticed Williams's rhetoric before now? His most recent obsession, before the NAACP flap, has been a crusade to halt construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan near Ground Zero. He has called the proposed structure a place where Muslims would honor the al-Qaeda hijackers and "worship the terrorists' monkey-god." He has called President Obama an "Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug."

If Williams is now a pariah in Tea Party circles, that's progress. But this episode should prompt the national leadership to look inward and acknowledge -- not just to the rest of us, but also to themselves -- that ugly, racially charged rhetoric has been part of the movement's stock in trade all along. If the Tea Party groundswell is to mature into something important and lasting, it needs to purge itself of this poison.

And if the Republican Party is going to try to harness the Tea Party's passion on behalf of GOP candidates, responsible leaders need to make clear that racism will not be tolerated. Yet Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to talk about the NAACP flap when asked about it Sunday, and Sen. John Cornyn volunteered that accusing the Tea Party of racism is "slanderous."

It's not slander if it's the truth, senator. No one can deny that some fraction of the Tea Party's considerable energy is generated by racism. Excommunicating Mark Williams was a start to disowning and discarding this element -- but just a start.

And by the way, remember when Attorney General Eric Holder urged us to have a national conversation about race? Well, this is how we do it -- awkwardly and episodically, almost always in reaction to a specific event. We don't talk, we shout and grumble. It ain't pretty, but it's the American way.

The writer will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.



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