When the majority of American voters selected Barack Obama as President of the United States of America last year, we caught a brief glimpse of post-racial America.
It lasted a few weeks, at least.
But the racial tension that has accompanied each major period of American history is again emerging under a new guise: The Tea Party/9-12 Project/Continental Congress '09 marches this weekend represent the new racist vanguard in America, uniting the anti-Muslim sentiments which followed the 9-11 attacks, Joe Wilson's singular obsession with undocumented immigrants receiving health care, and though in some ways subconsciously, a reaction to the nation's first black president.
These Tea Party groups are only months old, and yet they have attracted an intense following, spurred by AM talk radio and the John Birch Society, which has been race baiting for decades and had literature for sale in two merch tents in Boise's Capitol Park on Saturday. A few common themes unite the Tea Partiers, as far as I can tell: some evolving form of Christian patriotism, an aversion to paying taxes, fear of police with an equal and contradictory adoration of the law and the military, and a personal reading of the Constitution and Founding Fathers that borders on idolatry.
There are some fringe elements too: Birthers who continue to question Obama's citizenship, some 9-11 conspiracy theorists, vaccine skeptics, gun nuts and, yes, organic food nazis (at this point I use the term generously).
The casual and ignorant use of socialism and Communism and Marxism at these rally's have strong historical precedents, including the official red baiting of Martin Luther King, Jr., spurred some 50 years ago by the same Birchers.
Maureen Dowd has made a strong argument this morning that the rabid opposition to Obama is in fact race-based and not, as it pretends, policy based. You can easily write off the racist signs—Obama in white face as the Joker, show us the birth certificate, free ticket back to Kenya—as outliers. But their acceptance at these rallies is widespread and welcomed, including by elected officials like Emmet Rep. Steve Thayn, Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna who stopped by on his way to a ground breaking for a federal stimulus-funded school project in Wilder.
Here's how Dowd puts it:
"I’ve been loath to admit that the shrieking lunacy of the summer — the frantic efforts to paint our first black president as the Other, a foreigner, socialist, fascist, Marxist, racist, Commie, Nazi; a cad who would snuff old people; a snake who would indoctrinate kids — had much to do with race.
I tended to agree with some Obama advisers that Democratic presidents typically have provoked a frothing response from paranoids — from Father Coughlin against F.D.R. to Joe McCarthy against Truman to the John Birchers against J.F.K. and the vast right-wing conspiracy against Bill Clinton.
But Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president — no Democrat ever shouted “liar” at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq — convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it."
I am not saying that each marcher on Saturday in Boise is a racist. But whether they realize it or not, the leaders of this national protest movement are using race and immigration and terrorism to fire up a specific base of working class Christians, even when it is against their personal interest to march. Expanding socialized medicine, lowering middle class taxes and opening up vast new channels of communication with their government will benefit the largely working class attendees at the Tea Party rallies, yet they prefer to find unity in their collective fear or who is in charge.
A small counter protest moved about in their midst on Saturday morning. Some 50 people dressed in black and sang the National Anthem, but otherwise listened silently, holding signs supporting the presidency, health care reform and reiterating Obama's arguments in his Wednesday night address to Congress that American values include compassion, which complements, rather that contradicts our rugged individualism.
There is no solution to this fault line in American society. But let's stop pretending that these are just "angry tax payers" or "Constitutionalists" and get to the root of the divide. And perhaps, after four years of moderate reforms that may include lowering their insurance premiums and giving them more charter schools, the mobs will be able to see past skin color.