There were several conservatives of color at the Tea Party's fifth anniversary gala at the Washington Hyatt on Thursday, and they were more than happy to stand as living proof that not all Tea Partiers are racist white people. But there's a difference between saying all Tea Partiers are racist (which isn't true) and the movement's ideas sometimes attract those with anti-minority sentiments. The conservatives of color, who were the only ones willing to talk about race at the gala, missed that distinction.
At the gala, Tea Party Patriots pitched a vague outline of the plan moving forward: keep growing, keep fighting. What it didn't do was effectively deal with one recurring problem — how the movement's views on immigration and Hispanics, welfare and minorities, and national security and Muslims can sometimes bring out the worst in people. White Tea Partiers dodged the issue entirely. For example, during his speech, Sen. Rand Paul referred to a Tea Party member (Ted Nugent) who called another person (President Obama) a bad name ("subhuman mongrel") without naming any names. "There are times, and I don't think it is our movement, but there are times when people are using language that shouldn't be used," Paul said. And that was about as close as anyone came to acknowledging racial insensitivity some Patriots bring to the movement.
The real, and only, race talk came from several conservatives of color, whose "the Tea Party is not racist" argument boiled down to two points:
- I am a minority, and I am accepted, therefore the Tea Party isn't racist, and so...
- The enemy of minorities isn't the Tea Party, it's the European-style socialist welfare state.
To the first point, Rep. Raul Labrador joked that, "these Tea Party Patriots are so racist, they decided they wanted a Puerto Rican Mormon to be their Congressman," which got a lot of laughs. He was followed by conservative radio host George Rodriguez, who encouraged the conservative movement to reach out to Hispanics, in English and Spanish, because "contrary to what liberals believe, not all Hispanics are the same." Sonnie Johnson, a black woman who writes for Breitbart News, said her faith in God-fearing people made her comfortable to speak in front of mostly white groups. "I got this feeling that if God was welcome there, I would be too," she said to more applause. Johnson said her enemy was anyone who wanted to "exalt" the teachings of Karl Marx to "destroy capitalism and dethrone God."
K. Carl Smith, the founder of Fredrick Douglass Republicans, also used the "Obama is a socialist" argument. "Unfortunately, the opportunity to pursue our American dream is under attack by those who want to fundamentally transform our beloved county into a European socialist nation," Smith said, to applause. (At CPAC last year, Smith led a panel titled, "Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist and You Know You're Not One?" It was derailed by an actual segregationist.)
Tea Party coordinator Emery McClendon told the story of how he, as a black man, proved to the local media that he could rise to the occasion of holding a successful Tea Party rally in his home town. Anita Moncrief, an ACORN whistleblower and advisor to the conservative voter fraud fighting group True the Vote, spoke of how she left the groups after growing "tired of the victimhood, tired of the race card." The Tea Party gave her a home and "let her know it was okay to go up against the things I'd been taught" like being a "radical liberal," even though she didn't think she had anything in common with a 70-year-old white guy from New York who voted Republican all his life.
And that was it. Conservatives of color encouraged the audience to reach out to minorities, assured them they weren't racists and argued that socialist liberals were the real race baiters. And while the audience applauded them, no one else really seemed to want to address the racism issue. The problem the Tea Party has is that it doesn't know how to directly address and dismantle the concrete examples of prejudice — Steve King's cantaloupe calves comment, associating with white supremacists — displayed by some of its members. As Labrador, Johnson, Smith and all the rest prove, individual members of the Tea Party aren't racists. But they aren't the only ones who miss the old America.