Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

The NAACP and the Tea Party: The need for civil repair

In Domestic Politics on July 18, 2010 at 11:18 am

When leaders of the NAACP made public statements about race and the Tea Party, it drew a lot of attention and has subsequently produced quite a bit of debate.  Each side has been using accusations of racism against the other and some of these displays have been predictably strange. I have argued that the Tea Party is not a formally racist organization (although no one can doubt that it is surfacing racist sentiments), but that it is motivated by an assimilationist tendency of which many people in it may be unaware. These tendencies should be discussed so that we know what it is that people are fighting about. I think that we are closer to understanding one another across the racial divide than ever, even if it feels like we are falling apart. Racial suspicion keeps us from doing many other things that the country requires, and so we have to unfreeze the conflict by bringing the poison out in the open.

In the end, I think that the statement by the NAACP is measured and carefully worded. The organization has capitalized on a great opportunity to stimulate the national conversation on race that we have longed to have. We need to see race without seeing red, and all Americans need to understand that whoever takes back their country, cannot take it back to a situation in which only specific ways of life are respected . They also need to recognize that demands to take the country back sound like they are more about culture than they are about economic policy, and that rightly offends people.

As painful as it is for us to name racial bias, we have to do it, and we should do so in a way that opens up possibilities for what Jeffrey Alexander calls “civil repair.”  By this he means opening up the public space of solidarity to those who have been wrongfully excluded from it. We have moved a long way down this path with respect to race, but the structural legacies and residual indignities that resulted from previous exclusion are far from behind us. I think one piece of what makes this so painful is the fact that it takes so long. The lunch counter sit-ins that Ms. Maddow confronted candidate Rand Paul with after his primary victory are celebrating their 50th year. That is a long time and much has changed since then, but racial inequalities persist as do cross race suspicions. There is likely to be as much work still to be done.

One reason for hope can be found in the fact that in this discussion, the forces of civil repair are empowered and they are behaving well, even though I am sure that these paroxysms strain patience. The language of the NAACP is calm and really quite reasonable:

Today, NAACP delegates passed a resolution to condemn extremist elements within the Tea Party, calling on Tea Party leaders to repudiate those in their ranks who use racist language in their signs and speeches.

It surely makes sense to say that we should call on people to repudiate extremism. I am also sure that this debate makes those who have joined the Tea Party feel like they have been deeply violated, because it is actually quite damaging to be labeled a racist in our transformed political environment. The NAACP language does not imply that the movement and its members are racist, but only that it has, in places, promoted racist tendencies. We have all seen those events reported and so that seems hard for the movement to deny.

My hope in this (I realize that I am quite optimistic here), is that these events will lead to conversations that help us to see how the Tea Party’s animating producerist ideologies draw upon racially biased depictions.  They need not be racist ideas, but they have racial connotations that have to be something that we can discuss. My sense is that when things feel like they are falling apart, they may be, but it also may be true that we are preparing to let the scales fall from our eyes. We have to see all of this as part of the gift that the election of 2008 gave us. Even if you hate Democrats, the president and so-called liberal agenda, you have to admit that it is nice to have an African American couple in the White House, if only to make the old stereotypes that much more difficult to sustain.  Let’s watch to see if the forces at work in this can keep the civility going, and cross our fingers.

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