What do you get when you cross a corny old joke with a network news report? Something like this:
A black guy walks into a tea party, and a white lady says to him, “You know, we don’t get many African-Americans in here.” The black guy replies, “And at these prices, it’s no wonder!”
The joke, at least as we originally heard it, involves a kangaroo and a bartender. The news report, brought to our attention by the fellows at NewsBusters.org, involved NBC reporter Kelly O’Donnell and tea-party activist Darryl Postell. O’Donnell approached Postell at a Washington rally, and hilarity ensued:
O’Donnell: There aren’t a lot of African-American men at these events.
Postell: [laughs] Right.
O’Donnell: Have you ever felt uncomfortable?
Postell: No, no, these are my people, Americans.
Another joke, attributed to our friend Rich Miniter circa 1991, goes as follows: What do you call a black man at a conservative event? Guest speaker. To the New York Times’s Charles Blow, this is no laughing matter. Blow visited a tea party in Dallas last week and didn’t like what he saw:
I had specifically come to this rally because it was supposed to be especially diverse. And, on the stage at least, it was. The speakers included a black doctor who bashed Democrats for crying racism, a Hispanic immigrant who said that she had never received a single government entitlement and a Vietnamese immigrant who said that the Tea Party leader was God. It felt like a bizarre spoof of a 1980s Benetton ad.
The juxtaposition was striking: an abundance of diversity on the stage and a dearth of it in the crowd, with the exception of a few minorities like the young black man who carried a sign that read “Quit calling me a racist.”
Blow was especially put off by Alphonzo Rachel, a black comic who spoofs the president by performing skits as “Zo-bama.” Blow sums up the experience this way: “Thursday night I saw a political minstrel show devised for the entertainment of those on the rim of obliviousness and for those engaged in the subterfuge of intolerance. I was not amused.”
Blogger Conor Friedsdorf notes that there is a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose quality to the Blow approach:
In any context except a Tea Party, the vast majority of liberal writers would praise the act of highlighting the voices of “people of color” even if they aren’t particularly representative of a crowd or corporation or university class. Let it happen at a rally of conservatives, however, and this winds up on the nation’s premier op-ed page. . . .
It’s this kind of piece that causes people on the right to think that on matters of race, they’re damned if they do, and they’re damned if they don’t–if they don’t make efforts to include non-whites they’re unenlightened propagators of privilege, and if they do make those efforts they’re the cynical managers of a minstrel show, but either way, race is used as a cudgel to discredit them in a way that would never be applied to a political movement on the left.
Or, for that matter, to any nonpolitical institution that aspires to become more inclusive. Imagine Kelly O’Donnell questioning a black man in a largely white company or university or country club or suburb the way she interrogated Darryl Postell. She would come off as clueless and prejudiced–as, come to think of it, she does. (Kudos to NBC for airing this revealing though embarrassing footage.)
The political left claims to love racial diversity, but it bitterly opposes such diversity on the political right. This is an obvious matter of political self-interest: Since 1964, blacks have voted overwhelmingly Democratic. If Republicans were able to attract black votes, the result would be catastrophic for the Democratic Party. Even in 2008, the Democrats’ best presidential year since ’64, if the black vote had been evenly split between the parties (and holding the nonblack vote constant), Barack Obama would have gotten about 48% of the vote and John McCain would be president.
To keep blacks voting Democratic, it is necessary for the party and its supporters to keep alive the idea that racism is prevalent in America and to portray the Republican Party (as well as independent challengers to the Democrats, such as the tea-party movement) as racist. The election of Barack Obama made nonsense of the idea that America remains a racist country and thereby necessitated an intensifying of attacks on the opposition as racist.
These charges of racism are partly based on circular reasoning. Among Blow’s evidence that the tea-party movement is racist is “a New York Times/CBS News poll released on Wednesday [that] found that only 1 percent of Tea Party supporters are black and only 1 percent are Hispanic.” Other polls have put the black proportion as high as 5% (and, as Tom Maguire notes, Blow misreports his own paper’s Hispanic figure, which is actually 3%). But with blacks constituting some 12% of the population, there’s no question that the tea-party movement is whiter than the nation as a whole.
Yet to posit racism as an explanation is to ignore far more obvious and less invidious causes for the disparity. The tea-party movement’s racial composition reflects a pre-existing partisan alignment: The movement arose in opposition to the policies of a Democratic government, and the vast majority of blacks are Democrats, or at least vote for Democrats. Pride in the first black president, a normal and wholesome attitude, reinforces this partisan allegiance.
There’s another factor that might keep blacks away from tea parties: the perception, whether true or not, that the movement is racist–a perception that liberal politicians and commentators have worked tirelessly (and tiresomely) to propagate. Add to this the risk of race-based opprobrium from fellow blacks and even from white liberals for deviating from the way blacks are “supposed” to think. Charles Blow’s nasty descriptions of the blacks at the Dallas tea party reminded us of an Associated Press dispatch we noted April 7:
They’ve been called Oreos, traitors and Uncle Toms, and are used to having to defend their values. Now black conservatives are really taking heat for their involvement in the mostly white tea party movement–and for having the audacity to oppose the policies of the nation’s first black president.
So, there aren’t many African-Americans at the tea parties? At these prices, it’s no wonder!
Heat on Heath
Rep. Heath Shuler is taking some heat back in North Carolina over an incident he apparently had nothing to do with. Last week we noted that the Associated Press, based on a local newspaper report, had cited Shuler as corroborating the claims of three black congressmen that tea-party protesters shouted the “N-word” at them on March 20. Shuler’s press secretary told us that the local reporter had misunderstood and that Shuler did not hear the “N-word,” although he did hear someone call Rep. Barney Frank a “communist faggot.”
The local paper, the Hendersonville Times-News, ran a story Friday titled “Shuler Changes Story on What He Heard at Health Care Protests”:
U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler is distancing himself from comments he made to the Times-News last month, stating he heard racial slurs yelled from a crowd of angry health care protesters outside the U.S. Capitol. . . .
At that time, Shuler told the Times-News he was walking toward the Capitol with [Rep. Emanuel] Cleaver when protesters began yelling racial epithets at Cleaver.
Also on Friday, we received an emailed press release from Robert Danos, chairman of the Henderson County Republican Party:
This story, as far as WNC [western North Carolina] goes, has nothing to do with what did or did not happen on that very heated day outside of the Capitol.
It has everything to do with Heath Shuler’s dishonesty and his need, in this case, to place himself in the middle of a much focused on story.
I have no 1st hand knowledge of what occurred that day.
*The problem is that we now know that neither did Heath Shuler.*
He told the T-N he was there–he was not. Even after the T-N reported his “witness account” in its story on his health care vote, he did nothing to set the record straight until confronted by the AP with the fact that the video and stills show 100% that he was not there.
In doing so he hurts the stories of the African-American Congressmen who say they were assaulted with the n-word, he smears the protestors by indicting them with this vulgar charge without cause, and he shames the voters back home.
All 3 of those parties are owed an immediate and sincere apology.
Here our professional pride compels us to note that we, not the AP, first reported that Shuler disputed the Times-News story–though more on this anon.
In the dispute between Shuler and James Shea, the Times-News reporter, we have no way of knowing who’s right. Politicians have been known to change their stories for expedience’ sake, but reporters have also been known to get things wrong, and to stand behind even demonstrably false stories (cf Rather, Daniel Irvin).
In any case, the original Times-News story was ambiguous:
Shuler was walking with Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, an African-American, toward the Capitol building when the crowd starting yelling racial epithets at Cleaver, who was a civil rights activist in the 1970s. They even spat at him.
“It was the most horrible display of protesting I have ever seen in my life,” Shuler said.
Multiple members of Congress reported racial epithets being shouted at African-American members over the weekend.
“It breaks your heart that the way they display their anger is to spit on a member and use that kind of language,” Shuler said.
It was not clear from this what slurs, if any, Shuler heard, which is why we called his office for clarification. Only one specific fact from the original story is in dispute: the statement that Shuler was “walking with Cleaver.” (Though it also seems to us that Shea embellished Cleaver’s account. The Missouri Democrat said that one man, not “the crowd,” spat at him. The evidence suggests that it happened, though Cleaver later said he didn’t know if it was intentional.)
We would, however, like to set the record straight about another reporter’s work. NewsBusters.org gloated late Thursday about what it called a “correction” (actually a follow-up report) by the Associated Press, acknowledging Shuler’s denial of the Times-News report, which the AP’s Jesse Washington had picked up in an April 13 dispatch. According to NewsBusters:
And who did the initial investigation to find out what Heath Shuler actually heard? The AP? Nope. It was James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal. The AP was merely playing catchup on its own story.
In fact, we spoke with Washington on April 8, while he was reporting the story. He told us at the time that he had attempted to contact Shuler’s office for comment but his phone calls had gone unreturned. This should have been mentioned in his story, but that is a minor oversight, not a serious dereliction.
Now, it is true that when we called Shuler’s office on April 14, his press secretary came straight to the phone and readily answered our questions. Our surmise–and this is only a surmise–is that Shuler ducked Washington because he hoped to avoid being drawn into what by then had become a bitter controversy. This hope was in vain, as Washington picked up the Times-News report anyway. But the piling on by the press and the GOP back home illustrates why Shuler might have preferred to stay out of it.
What’s the Matter With Connecticut?
Kate Zernike of the New York Times puzzles over the results of her paper’s tea-party poll:
It makes sense that people would take to the streets to protest government spending and enormous deficits during the Great Recession, when they are feeling economic pain most acutely.
But the Tea Party supporters now taking to the streets aren’t the ones feeling the pain.
In the results of the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, they are better educated and wealthier than the general public. They are just as likely to be employed, and more likely to describe their economic situation as very or fairly good.
Yet they are disproportionately pessimistic about the economy and the nation. A breathtaking 92 percent said the country is on the wrong track.
It’s a twist on the old Thomas Frank “What’s the matter with Kansas?” argument. Frank and Zernike both find it puzzling that people would act contrary to their putative economic self-interest. Frank wonders why the nonrich would oppose liberal politicians, who promise to make them less nonrich; Zernike is mystified by discontent among the well-off. She attributes it to cultural forces of the sort that Frank deplores:
The poll reveals a deep conviction among Tea Party supporters that the country is being run by people who do not share their values, for the benefit of people who are not like them. That is a recurring theme of the previous half-century–conservatives in liberal eras declaring the imperative to “Take America Back.”
“The story they’re telling is that somehow the authentic, real America is being polluted,” said Rick Perlstein, the author of books about the Goldwater and Nixon years.
There may be some truth to this. But couldn’t there be a rational basis for their cultural intuitions? If tea-party activists tend to be people with the wherewithal to put their own lives on the right track, maybe they’re on to something when they say the country is on the wrong one.