Paging Al Jolson…

Charles Blow at NYT:

On Thursday, I came here outside Dallas for a Tea Party rally.

At first I thought, “Wow! This is much more diverse than the rallies I’ve seen on television.”

Then I realized that I was looking at stadium workers. I should have figured as much when I approached the gate. The greeter had asked, “Are you working tonight?”

I sat in the front row. But when the emcee asked, “Do we have any infiltrators?” and I almost raised my hand, I realized that sitting there might not be such a good idea.

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.”


It was a farce. This Tea Party wanted to project a mainstream image of a group that is anything but. A New York Times/CBS News poll released on Wednesday found that only 1 percent of Tea Party supporters are black and only 1 percent are Hispanic. It’s almost all white.

And even when compared to other whites, their views are extreme and marginal. For instance, white Tea Party supporters are twice as likely as white independents and eight times as likely as white Democrats to believe that Barack Obama was born in another country.

Furthermore, they were more than eight times as likely as white independents and six times as likely as white Democrats to think that the Obama administration favors blacks over whites.

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.

Michael C. Moynihan at Reason:

Filming and interviewing at yesterday’s Tea Party rally in DC with my comrade Meredith Bragg, we met some perfectly normal, clever, interesting people (including a black goth kid from West Virginia who really, really wanted to “end the Fed”) and a cluster of weirdos not entirely convinced that President Obama was a Christian or that he wasn’t born at a madrassa in Swaziland. There were limited government types, libertarians, conspiricist kooks, and a handful of people who desperately need someone to elucidate the differences between liberalism, social democracy, socialism, and communism. One attendee, who was incredibly well informed on a number of issues, nevertheless explained that we were seeing an incrementalist approach to a Stalinist state. Interrupting, I said with sarcasm, “but, ya know, without the genocide.” Oh you naive young lad, he sighed, just wait and see.

Now, I usually preface all discussion of the Tea Parties with links to my criticism of some of the nonsense I have come across interviewing, to clarify that I find some of the rhetoric I’ve come across when reporting from various Tea Party events to be deeply problematic. But most of it, though, is simply a canned case against government spending. As Tunku Varadarajan writes at the Daily Beast, commenting on a recent poll of Tea Party participants, “It is now safe for metropolitan Americans to say—without fear of pillory, or of being waved away as wing-nuts—that the Tea Partiers are not a bilious, lunatic, unschooled, racist rabble out to sabotage our first African-American president, but are, instead, passionate, educated, middle-aged, middle-class and relatively prosperous critics of the Obama administration.”

I think this is largely right, though there are clearly a helping of bilious lunatics milling about too. Then again, if someone tasked me with collecting offensive, racist, misspelled signs from International ANSWER rallies, I suspect I could cobble together a pretty terrifying display from “the other side.” (This isn’t entirely accurate, for many of the people at the Tea Parties are staunch anti-interventionists; indeed, Glenn Beck is drifting towards a Ron Paul-type foreign policy).

Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene on Blow’s article:

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.

On Moynihan:

What I really loved about this passage was the “black goth kid from West Virginia who really, really wanted to ‘end the Fed’” — as everyone knows who has actually attended any mass political rally, America is a deeply weird country filled with colorful individuals whose identities almost never fit into the categories that are so often discussed in the media.

I’d bet that “the 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” are all interesting people with honestly held convictions that are understandable outgrowths of their reason and experience.

Mr. Blow, meanwhile, thinks that they are minstrels.

South Bend Seven:

I don’t have a lot of patience for the Tea Party crowd.  For one thing,  I think going to political rallies is a supremely ineffectual thing to do.  I actually think carrying protest signs may be actively harmful, since it  allows people to feel as if they are having an impact while making almost no difference.

Add to that the fact that a lot of them are they’re pretty ill-informed and a hefty chunk are nutso paranoids.  (See Michael Moynihan’s piece here, which Friedersdorf links to.)  But this is a country which has decided the Slanket is a swell thing, so I’m pretty much surrounded by crazy people who’s opinions and decisions I can’t trust.  So I don’t really have a lot of sympathy for those folks, even though we have much common ideological ground.

Nevertheless, I can’t stand having them dismissed out of hand.  The leftward wing of “the elite” are always bemoaning a lack of “engagement” with the other side, and an insufficient amount of bipartisanship and cooperation, but when a serious ideological movement springs up practically over night the only response I hear is that they’re all knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing, maleficent cretins who should shut up, go back to the hinterlands, and accept that their betters have it all under control.  I don’t like people who oppose me deploying bad arguments, but I don’t like people who agree with me deploying bad arguments either, and in this case the “ZOMG! Tea baggers = stupid paranoid racists!!” is one part of the latter and four parts of the former.

More to the point at hand, what if 100% of the non-white people at that rally were shills?  What if the whole movement was white?  Saying that an opinion is only acceptable if it is embraced by a sufficient number of members of certain groups is logically the same thing as saying that opinions are only valid if they are sufficiently popular in general.  The validity of an idea is unrelated to the number of people who agree with it, just as it is unrelated to the types of people who believe it.

Jamelle on Friedersdorf:

I wouldn’t say that Friedersdorf is missing the point here, I’m not sure if he’s aware enough to grasp the problem with this particular display of “diversity.” Conor calls Blow’s piece unfair, asserting that “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.”

But the “minstrelsy” Blow decries doesn’t flow from the mere presence of minority voices at a conservative rally — which is what Fridersdorf seems to think — it flows from the fact that those voices are forced to engage in elaborate tribal rituals to show the white Tea Partiers that they’re on their side. And that’s precisely because there are so few people of color within the Tea Party Movement, and conservative circles more generally. From what I’ve seen, conservative activists have a habit of categorically defining people of color as ideologically hostile, so that their mere presence isn’t enough to convince organizers or attendants that their sympathies are shared. In turn, this suspicion requires those singular voices of color to “perform” and show their loyalty, in order to gain acceptance. The exact opposite dynamic occurs on the left, for the simple reason that white liberals feel they can readily assume ideological sympathy from any given person of color, regardless of circumstance. Which, admittedly, is also very problematic.

Adam Serwer at Tapped on Friedersdorf:

There are cultural and historical reasons for that, which Friedersdorf doesn’t seem willing to acknowledge. More to the point though, Blow’s reaction, which I think was unfair, was a visceral one related to seeing people of color engage in what Bouie refers to as the “elaborate tribal rituals” necessary for them to gain acceptance in a conservative setting.

This isn’t mere conjecture on Blow’s part. Think about Republican Congressional Candidate Corey Poitier calling Obama “buckwheat,” or Michael Steele assuring Republicans that Obama only won because he’s black, or Marco Rubio insisting the president is an idiot savant who just knows how to read from a teleprompter. Is it any surprise that black conservatives feel like they have to engage in baroque gestures of solidarity, considering that merely being a black stranger in a conservative crowd puts one at risk of being mistaken for a member of ACORN?

The disturbing implication of these events is that many conservatives use skin color as a shorthand for identifying those who are “on their team,” and Friedersdorf seems uninterested in addressing this. White liberals can’t really do exactly this because the Democratic Party is much more diverse, but liberals also often make problematic assumptions about black people and their politics. If you think the old tribal instincts can’t be rekindled on the left, I would direct you to some of the liberal reactions to Prop 8’s passage in California. No party or ideology has a monopoly on racism, but let’s not pretend that there isn’t anything implicitly racial or problematic about a movement that claims the mantle of being “real Americans” and just happens to be overwhelmingly white.

In any case, what conservative Tea Partiers are doing in Blow’s piece is not minstrelsy, which implies an active effort to harm other black people for personal gain by reinforcing long-held black stereotypes. The Tea Partiers of color here are instead trying to signal solidarity with a group of people who are suspicious of them because of their skin tones, and that’s both sad and frustrating. But they are ultimately trying to purchase access to a political community that they feel better suits their views, and they’re entitled to that. Being black and conservative does not make you a sellout.

Where Blow is reductive, Friedersdorf is oblivious. Friedersdorf writes that he is certain that the Tea Partiers Blow criticizes are “interesting people with honestly held convictions that are understandable outgrowths of their reason and experience.” Of course. But why is part of their experience having to try so hard to convince their ideological cohorts they’re on the same side? Instead of asking this question, Friedsdorf whines that conservatives are held to a different standard on issues of race than liberals, which is a funny question to ask during Confederate History Month.

Jamelle responds to Serwer:

In that last post, my emotion definitely got the best of me. Adam is right, the Tea Partiers of color aren’t minstrels, and their signaling — though extremely problematic — isn’t minstrelsy. Being black and conservative really doesn’t make you a sellout, and it was unfair of me to imply otherwise (and runs counter to my long-stated goal of wanting to see more black Republicans). That said, like Adam, I wish Friedersdorf could see what’s problematic about the conservative tendency to see skin color as a way to discern ideological sympathies. Confronting it won’t be pleasant, but if Friedersdorf is interested in building a conservatism that’s hospitable to Americans of all colors, he’s eventually going to have to accept that racially, there’s much work to be done on the Right

Friedersdorf on Jamelle and Serwer:

Look, I do think some conservatives have a problematic tendency to see minorities as others — and that liberals, for their part, tend to assume that “people of color” must be “on their side” — but the right’s “real Americans” nonsense isn’t about race. Trust me, Sarah Palin is denigrating Ivy League colleges, the richest households in Manhattan, and coastal dwelling white liberals far more than, for example, black folks in Mississippi or Hmong in Wisconsin.


ad the column by Mr. Blow offered evidence for all these assumptions, its problematic elements might have been less egregious. But if we look at what Mr. Blow wrote, there is nothing to suggest that the folks at that Tea Party rally defined minorities as ideologically hostile, or that the minorities were “required” to “perform” to gain acceptance, or that they engaged in “elaborate tribal rituals” — perhaps there are “historical and cultural reasons” that cause Mr. Bouie to assume that all these things happened, but in fact, all we’re told is that “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.”

Mr. Serwer writes:

Where Blow is reductive, Friedersdorf is oblivious. Friedersdorf writes that he is certain that the Tea Partiers Blow criticizes are “interesting people with honestly held convictions that are understandable outgrowths of their reason and experience.” Of course. But why is part of their experience having to try so hard to convince their ideological cohorts they’re on the same side? Instead of asking this question, Friedersdorf whines that conservatives are held to a different standard on issues of race than liberals, which is a funny question to ask during Confederate History Month.Again, this assumption that the minorities at that rally had to “try so hard” to persuade ideological fellows they were on the same side. I am hardly blind to Confederate History Month, or the subset of Southern conservatives whose ideas about race in America are quite wrongheaded. I just think its nonsense to invoke those conservatives in order to defend a New York Times column that Mr. Serwer himself calls “unfair” and “reductive,” or to call someone oblivious because they don’t include in every blog post on race a paragraph that says, “To be sure, it is understandable for a writer to pen a wrongheaded, reductive column attacking conservatives as minstrel show managers given the fact that some other conservatives who are completely uninvolved in this particular controversy hold problematic views on the subject of race.”

Serwer responds to Friedersdorf:

What is Friedersdorf’s priority? A conservative movement not seen as widely hostile to people of color because it isn’t, or a conservative movement that doesn’t have to deal with being seen as widely hostile to people of color? The above statement suggests the latter, which goes a long way toward explaining conservatives’ ongoing difficulties on matters of race.

That the Tea Party is so overwhelmingly white isn’t seen as a symptom of a larger problem (which is that most people of color view Republicans as hostile to them or their interests, because, well, they often are). Instead, the problem Friedersdorf hones in on is that people notice the undercurrent of racial hostility at some of these events and write about them in ways that make conservatives look bad on matters of race. He’s mistaking the symptom for the disease.

I think liberals bear some responsibility for this in that they often seem satisfied with similar superficial gestures of “diversity,” but liberals also get into internal conflicts about these things all the time, precisely because they see this kind of inclusiveness as being genuinely important in a way that the right doesn’t. Conservative criticisms of such empty gestures would also bear far more weight if they weren’t so generally dismissive of racism except when directed at white people or when the target happens to be a self-identified conservative person of color.

As for the “Real Americans” conceit, Friedersdorf argues that “the right’s ‘real Americans’ nonsense isn’t about race” since it’s also applied to presumably white liberal academic elites on the coasts, etc. This isn’t an either or, and it’s pretty clear from the lengths people of color have to go to qualify that the definition has a racial dimension as well as a cultural one — and that neither are ultimately very inclusive of people who don’t happen to be white, Christian, and heterosexual.

Andrew Sullivan, who links to Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I think what Conor is missing here is a real historical context for the exchange between modern liberalism and black America. Old school liberals will recall exceedingly nasty conversations between blacks and their would-be white allies stretching back to the days of the Scottsboro Boys through the James Baldwin’s meeting with Robert F. Kennedy, to the Weathermen and the Panthers, through Hillary’s run against Obama.
The sense among some white liberals that they were “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” was part of the work. The sense among some blacks that white liberals didn’t actually get it, and were just rebelling against Daddy, (or some such) was part of the work. In a modern context, many of us who supported Obama thought that Bill Clinton’s Jesse Jackson riff was appalling and low. And many of us who supported Hillary thought that, while liberals had an eye out for any whiff of racism, sexism was basically yawned at.
And yet through it all, blacks have allied themselves, in the main, with liberals. They haven’t done this because they support the entire liberal agenda, or because they think liberalism is an implicit cure-all for racism. They’ve done it because because reconciling the country to its own diversity is at the core of modern liberalism–it’s the foundation to the house, not the paint-job. This is about history. Lyndon Johnson didn’t simply look for black people to window-dress existing policy, he expanded existing policy in a way that showed a policy commitment–at great political cost–to healing the country’s oldest wound, and, in the process, he purged the party of people who had vested interest in jabbing at the wound.

And Jon Bernstein:

You know what I think?  We’re all grown-ups here; we can speak plainly.  Republicans made a choice to appeal to people who didn’t like blacks (and gays, and a variety of other “others”).  They have reaped benefits from that; there are also costs.  Some people now who weren’t even born when Republicans made that choice and who are attracted to conservative ideas — and are not bigots in any way — don’t like the fact that conservatives including themselves have to suffer that extra scrutiny, because it ain’t their fault, so why are they pegged with the it?  Well, tough luck.  You choose who you hang out with.  Politics isn’t just about ideas; it’s also about groups, and teams, whether one likes it or not: you choose who you hang out with.  Not that Conor Friedersdorf has anything to apologize for in my view and to the best of my knowledge; he’s generally quick to call out conservatives who misbehave, and in my opinion has long since earned the right to be regarded as well-meaning and well-intentioned.  But not so for the leaders of the Tea Parties, and not so for many of the leaders of the Republican Party.  Friedersdorf is wrong to believe that race is unfairly being used as a “cudgel to discredit them.”  It’s their own acts of commission and omission, their own tolerance of ugly signs and rumors and slogans, their own fealty to Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh and the rest of it, that discredits them.

UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Conor Friedersdorf

UPDATE #2: Adam Serwer at Tapped



Filed under Politics, Race

2 responses to “Paging Al Jolson…

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built This Weekend « Around The Sphere

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