The grounds of the U.S. Capitol were the site of a conservative rally on Saturday that drew tens of thousands of protesters to Washington, D.C. The immediate occasion for the protest is the health care reform effort, but it quickly became obvious that some of the protesters’ complaints were of more antique vintage. What united them all was their animus towards the President and, sadly, it is time to ask how much of a factor racism is playing in these Tea Party protests.
The protest was organized by several ostensibly mainstream groups, such as FreedomWorks, a D.C. organization founded by former Congressman Dick Armey and the web-based group ResistNet. This latter organization is especially important because it shows the power of the internet to organize groups of motivated activists quickly, but it also demonstrates the lack of institutional cohesion the net provides. For example, ResistNet has a "zero tolerance" policy for "personal attacks" or "militancy against Barack Obama or others." Yet, the crowd on Saturday was filled many tee-shirts and posters of the President’s face distorted to resemble the Joker from "Batman" with the caption "Socialism." That would seem to be personal, no? And, did these folks see the movie? The Joker, you may recall, created chaos and hoped that such chaos would lead otherwise decent people to do indecent things. His brand of evil had a libertarian flavor, not a socialistic one.
The signs at the protests and the comments to the television cameras invoked patriotic images mostly. Many people carried Gadsden’s flag with its coiled rattlesnake and the motto "Don’t Tread on Me." One poster read simply "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!" and others found ways to echo or praise Congressman Joe Wilson who yelled "You Lie!" at the President during Wednesday night’s joint session.
But, other complaints were disturbing, and disturbing at several levels. One man who must have been designated as a spokesman because I saw him interviewed on different networks both before and after the event, repeated the mantra about returning to the vision of the Founding Fathers. In the course of the interview, he said the root of the problem was Seventeenth Amendment, providing for the direct election of Senators. The man was very concerned that Senators no longer "represent the States" as intended, pointing out that America is a Republic, not a democracy. He did not indicate why this issue had not come up during last year’s election or what it had to do with health care reform. Others, repeating the paranoid economic vision of Congressman Ron Paul, cited the Federal Reserve as the root of the problem. "It’s not just about health care," one protester said, "It’s about so much more than that." Indeed.
The Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913. The Federal Reserve was created the same year. (Conspiracy theorists of the world, go crazy with that coincidence! Alas, the internet can be used to spread kookiness as well as information.) They have been on the books for almost one hundred years, yet apart from meetings of the John Birch Society, such complaints have not usually been part of mainstream political debate. The last time this fetish for states’ rights manifested itself was in the opposition to the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s.
Re-read that last sentence. It is becoming well nigh impossible to deny the racist overtones of these protests. Bill Clinton was hated by Washington’s professional Republicans, but I do not recall tens of thousand descending upon Washington armed with arguments about the Seventeenth Amendment. Jimmy Carter certainly was accused of many things, but hostility to the U.S. Constitution was not one of them. The list goes on. I do not know what percentage of the protesters on Saturday harbor racist sentiments. But, watching and listening, it is difficult not to conclude that the strong sense of grievance, the idea that "Nobody’s standing up for us!" as one man from Tennessee put it, was not only to restore certain constitutional principles, but the social hierarchy that prevailed in earlier times, a hierarchy that kept blacks on the lowest rungs of society. No matter their degree of education, the most talented, educated black was still lower than the least educated white yahoo.
The election of Barack Obama was the final nail in the coffin of institutionalized racism in our nation’s political life, although the attitudes still exist and will manifest themselves to be sure and blacks and Latinos face racism in the private sector all the time. But, if you really thought the Civil Rights movement was a mistake, seeing President Obama address Congress is precisely the thing that will drive you nuts. Republicans who have principled reasons for opposing the President on health care should be careful about how and among whom they stir up opposition. Many of the virtually all-white crowd on Saturday yearned for an earlier time with less government involvement in society. But, that earlier time recalls, for many of us, the memory of states’ rights being enforced through dogs and water cannons. We do not want to go back. We want to go forward.
Michael Sean Winters