Longtime labor and international activist Bill Fletcher likened the Tea Party movement to herpes—they have always been there lying dormant and inevitably re-emerge whenever the nation’s immune system goes down. Highlighting the racist overtures of this inflammation on the body politic, Bill adds that it will take more than “economic inoculation” in order to return them into a slumbering state. In other words, just addressing “bread and butter” issues will not be enough. We still need to address race.
Bill’s diagnosis haunted me when I gave the keynote address at the 20th Annual Students of Color conference in Washington entitled: “Generation of Change: We are the Future!” I told the students gathered that their generation are the Rainbow warriors to usher a new era as foretold by Native American elders, the Joshua generation to lead us to the Promised Land as predicted by some black church leaders, the embodiment of “si se puede” as articulated by Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, and the “golden bridge towards the future” loved and honored by manong Philip Vera Cruz and the Pilipino farmworkers of UFW past. I cited US Census Bureau projections that by 2028, 18-29 years olds will be majority of color and by 2030, white deaths will outpace white births. Communities of color will be the majority of this nation in one generation.
Afterwards, a group of mostly students of color gathered around me to talk further. However, the only white male student present, who was also about 15 years older than most of the other students, began dominating the discussion. He lamented the lack of attention to his experiences and made an effort to let us know that white is also a color. He complained, “where was my white privilege when I couldn’t afford my mortgage anymore?!”
After some time, I interrupted his monologue. I told him, “I hear you but you are attending a Students of Color conference. This is a safe space for students of color. Many of them are arriving with the expectation that their life experiences will be finally heard and put front and center. If you are wondering why a number of them are shunning you after you speak, it is because they come with the expectation that you are here to listen to their experiences and to learn from where they are coming from. If you haven’t noticed, you have been dominating most of this discussion without hesitation and many of them have not had a chance to even speak yet. That’s white privilege.”
He then replied, “But, where can I go–the Tea Party!?”
His response does reveal a real concern. Longtime union activist and educator, Lou Siegel, once commented to me while gesturing towards the Tea Partiers, “they should have been with us.” In the last presidential election, labor unions were the only ones able to effectively mobilize white working families, especially white men, for Obama. White men largely voted Republican, except when they were union members. The Tea Party anger over bank bail-outs, an unaccountable Wall Street, and an economy that does not help them is consistent with the union message and program. The Tea Partiers are also the result of an overall shrinking labor movement and consequent declining power of working people.
However, a focus on “pocket book” issues is not enough, since it was a labor movement at the turn of the 20th century, which included a Tea Party element, that succeeded in passing the first racially discriminatory immigration law in the nation, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and subsequent laws such as the 1917 “Asiatic Barred Zone” which banned any immigrant of Asian descent. As much as this white student expressed legitimate concerns, he did inappropriately seize center stage and pushed the voices of other students of color to the side and unilaterally dismissed their experiences. He was so focused on his own, he couldn’t hear theirs.
The Tea Partiers have done the same. Granted not all Tea Partiers condoned the racist signs and statements at their events but they did push voices and stories of color to the side. Ironically, many of them never voted for Obama in the first place but this numerical minority has affected national legislation and marginalized the experiences and concerns of the many communities of color, who mostly voted for Obama and have consistently and largely supported progressive political changes such as health care reform.
At this same conference I attended, a 19-year old student named “Jair” stood up and told his story. He has spent almost his entire life in the US and currently ranks as one of the top 2 students at his college. “Jair” suddenly broke down and began crying and through his tears, he stated, “but no matter how hard I work and no matter what I do, I am told that I do not matter. I just want a normal life.” This student is undocumented but he had the courage to stand up and fight for his rights as a human being.
Coincidently, this happened on the same day, the governor of Arizona signed into law SB1070 which basically gave the police the authority to “pull over” anyone who may look like an “illegal” immigrant. (The constitutionality of SB1070 was later challenged. In 2012 the U.S. Supreme court ruled it unconstitutional) An elder white woman in her 70s spoke up and declared her support of “Jair.” Another student pledged to talk with his student senate. The rest of the room, even those who initially did not support the plight of undocumented students, followed suit and stood by “Jair”.
The Tea Partiers have always been and will always be there but we must also listen to the voices and stories of “Jair” and others. Their stories can bring a room together.