Can’t we just call them what they really are? I speak of the Tea Party crowd that hates Obama and thinks he’s a socialist, fascist, communist Muslim who was born in Kenya and pals around with terrorists. They have allies in the Republican Party, and enablers on Fox News and rightwing talk radio. And I also refer to those white domestic terror groups - anti-government, anti-tax, anti-abortion, anti-immigrant, racist, homophobic, gun worshipers, whatever - that would take matters into their own hands.
I call them all Klan. And why not? They also happen to be the radicalized base of the GOP, those barrel scrapings that call themselves the ultra-right these days. Back to the barrel scraping in a moment.
Some of you may conclude I’m painting in awfully broad brushstrokes here. You’re entitled to your opinion, but I have my reasons, if you just listen.
First of all, the recent images of the unwashed Tea Party faithful threatening members of Congress - of spitting at African-American lawmakers and calling them n*gger, calling a gay lawmaker a f*ggot, and so on - are shocking, although not entirely surprising. Since the 2008 election, empowered by the McCain-Palin rallies, these folks have been on a rampage. They came with their racist placards and Obama monkey dolls complete with nooses. Some arrived with their loaded weapons. Under the banner of “taking our country back,” these people were and still are angry, to be sure.
Those of you who remember the televised images of angry white protestors in the 1950s and 1960s know that this is nothing new. Whenever a black child tried to integrate a school in the Jim Crow South, the teabaggers of their day were out there to show their outrage. Whenever African Americans tried to register to vote or sit at a segregated lunch counter, the same crowd was out there. They came with their fists, their vulgarity, threats of violence and spitting. They, too, wanted to take their country back, and for the same reasons as their twenty-first century heirs. While some of these hotheads limited their protest to the usual rabblerousing, others went the extra mile and engaged in lynching, bombing and other acts of terror.
Meanwhile, the Dixiecrat lawmakers of the day, hoping to curry favor with their Southern Democratic base, gave a wink and a nod to the racial violence. And so, Southern politicians signed the Southern Manifesto and filibustered civil rights legislation. They vowed to fight to preserve segregation, and stood on the schoolhouse steps to defy the federal authorities, in an expression of white Christian nationalism and skin-tone solidarity. The white-collar Klan was on the same page with the down-and-dirty Klan, not to mention the everyday racist on the streets. They all read from the same game plan, and they all knew what to do, a distinct role cut out for each. Some did the dirty work, while others appeared stately, as if to remain above the fray. But the overall goal was to stop black people from becoming full citizens.
Although times are rather different now, the comparisons between the days of the civil rights movement and today are compelling. Amidst the increasing acts of violence, threats of violence and polluted discourse that we are witnessing, Republican leaders are for the most part silent about the hate emanating from their base. Sometimes they are too busy justifying the violence their base represents, if not actively fomenting it. Cynical politicians that they are, they want to harness the Teabagger, Birther and militia hate. This is their ticket to electoral victory, they believe.
And RNC Chairman Michael Steele and Rep. Eric Cantor (R, VA), a black and a Jew, should be ashamed for their participation in this blatant exercise in extremist intolerance called the Republican Party. These two men appear to be among the last vestiges of diversity in the once Grand Old Party, the party that once boasted 1,500 black political officeholders during Reconstruction. Michael Steele claims he is facing scrutiny from the party because of his race, and perhaps he is correct. But as a person of color, Steele cannot cry racism. He cannot claim victimization when he has willingly cast his lot with those who revel in their white skin privilege, and depend on the race card for their bread and butter. In other words, he knowingly assumed the risk.
And exactly why is the Republican base so angry these days? What do they want? Is this really all about taxes and the size of government? And why were they so eager to protect the interests of health insurance companies, who on a daily basis commit grand larceny against the struggling schlubs of America? Corporate lobbyists bankrolled the Teabaggers because low information voters (a.k.a. the ignorant and uneducated) have a propensity to act against their economic self interests. For years, poor whites sided with the wealthy to maintain an economic system that rendered their labor superfluous. And they refused to join forces with workers of color in a collective effort to unionize and raise everyone’s standard of living. They were poor and dumb, but at least they weren’t black, so they thought.
In 2010, the Tea Party anger is depicted in the media as a legitimate beef with the government. But when you look below the surface, they’re really just racist. They want their country returned to them, from the hands of a black boogeyman President Obama. They want the immigrants expelled. Surely they are concerned that over half of the babies born in the U.S. are of color. When the right fringe gains control of school boards, as is the case with Texas, they literally erase all the color from the history books and “can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist.” And they oppose taxes and government programs such as health care because they think that blacks and Latinos are the beneficiaries. Rush Limbaugh said himself that health care reform is a civil rights bill, reparations for slavery. This attitude reflects a natural progression of the GOP since the 1960s, when aggrieved racists formed white Christian “segregation academies”, and fled the Democratic Party to make a home in the GOP.
The GOP benefitted from a “Southern Strategy” that exploited white opposition to the civil rights movement, and antipathy towards black folks. One of the chief practitioners of that strategy was the late Lee Atwater. He described the Southern Strategy this way:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger,’ ” said Atwater. “By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’ - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
This strategy served the GOP very well in past elections, but now demographics are catching up with the party. In a browning America, their base is shrinking. With every race-baiting campaign, more reasonable moderate and liberal whites fled the Republican Party until there were virtually none left. What remains now, for the most part, is a regionalized, ultra-right core, many of whom are racist. And apparently some are violent as well.
Embracing the fringe, the GOP is scraping the bottom of the barrel and courting the troubling and troubled byproducts they find. They do so at their own peril, as now some violent anti-government “Guardians” have sent death threats to Republican and Democratic governors. The recent incarnations of the angry mob have many brand new names, but they’re still the old Klan to me.
This article first appeared in The Black Commentator and is republished with permission.