Tea Party Groups Battling Perceptions of Racism

Amy Gardner and Krissah Thompson, Washington Post, May 5, 2010

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“We don’t want the worst elements to take this over,” said Brendan Steinhauser, campaign director for FreedomWorks, a national group that helps coordinate tea party activists. “If they do, the tea party loses independents, it loses moderates, it loses people who don’t tolerate this. Being a racist is one of the worst things you can be in this society. No one wants to be labeled this.”

The challenge is made tougher by one of the defining elements of the tea party movement: No one person controls it. There is no national communications strategy. And incidents of racist slogans and derisive depictions of President Obama continue to crop up, providing fuel for critics who say the president’s skin color is a powerful reason behind the movement’s existence.

In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, most Americans see the movement as motivated by distrust of government, opposition to the policies of Obama and the Democratic Party, and broad concern about the economy. But nearly three in 10 see racial prejudice as underlying the tea party.

Supporters and opponents alike say the movement draws its strength from opposition to Obama’s policies, but they split deeply on the race question, according to the poll: About 61 percent of tea party opponents say racism has a lot to do with the movement, a view held by just 7 percent of tea party supporters.

A matter of perception

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‘They were thrown out’

Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, said that at the heart of the effort to counter racism accusations is dissociating from protesters who cross the line. {snip}

At a protest in Nashville, Phillips said, there were “a couple of signs–which I’m not convinced weren’t plants from the other side–that were really tasteless and inappropriate.” The people who carried them “were told to put their signs down and leave. . . . They were literally thrown out of the event,” he said.

Tea party activists also point to the minority participants in their groups. “There are a lot of people bringing up the race card,” said Jim Coop, a member of the Tipton County Tea Party in Tennessee. “The tea parties I’ve been to, there’ve been black people there, Mexicans and everybody else you can think of.”

Nigel Coleman, who is black, leads the Danville TEA Party Patriots in southern Virginia. He said the fact that the movement is predominantly white doesn’t mean it is inherently racist.

“I went to a wine festival yesterday,” he said. “Weren’t too many black people there, either. Nobody called them racists.”

Nonetheless, tea party activists clearly feel an urgency to end the discussion.

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