In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, Representative Charlie Rangel stated that the Tea Party is akin to the “crackers” who fought against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Predictably, Rangel’s description of the Tea Party was greeted with claims of “reverse racism” by conservatives, the Right-wing media, and their black conservative lapdog apologists.
Precision is important when discussion the relationship between race and language.
Cracker is a word used by African-Americans to describe white people who are racist and bigoted towards them.
While the exact origins of the word cracker (or its other version “cracka”) have not been determined, it was most likely based on the sound that an overseer’s whip would make as it tore and scarred the flesh of black human chattel. Whatever its etymology, the word “cracker” is in no way equivalent to the word “nigger”.
To point: Black folks yelling cracker did not systematically deny whites their civil rights, burn them alive, enslave and rape them by the millions, mutilate their bodies, or leave them hanging from tree during spectacular lynchings. Likewise, African-Americans never enforced a several centuries long regime of racial terrorism against white people, dehumanizing them through the use of language intended to legitimate their oppression and exploitation.
As comedian Louis CK so deftly observes, “is there even a word in the English language that a black person can use to hurt a white man’s feelings?” No.
The feigned offense and hysterical response by the Right-wing media to the use of the word “cracker” by African-Americans, as seen several weeks ago during the Trayvon Martin murder trial, and now in the aftermath of Rangel’s interview with The Daily Beast is simply one more example of the White Right crying the victomology blues in order to gin up support for their sick fiction and delusion that white people are now oppressed by racial minorities in the United States during the Age of Obama.
Rangel’s suggestion that the Tea Party is comprised of white crackers is actually a claim that can be empirically evaluated. If a cracker is a white person who holds anti-black animus and feelings—what can range from “old fashioned” open and public bigotry, to “backstage racism” and more subtle types of implicit bias—then what does the actual evidence tell us about the Tea Party GOP and its members’ racial attitudes?
In the most obvious and public examples, Tea Party rallies have featured signs depicting Barack Obama as an African “witchdoctor” or “savage”. Tea Party supporters have also carried signs emblazoned with the Confederate flag, or used monkey and ape imagery to describe the country’s first black president at their rallies.
Silence and complicity is endorsement: the attendees at these rallies were not rejected or condemned by their fellow Tea Party members; rather, their racist message was embraced and supported.
When combined with the Tea Party’s support of Birtherism, a racially degenerative picture is painted which suggests that black people are closer to animals and apes than full human beings. Moreover, from this perspective Barack Obama is not a legitimate president because he is not white, and is thus some type of perennial Other, one who cannot be reconciled within the tradition of White “Real America.”
Leaders in the Tea Party have been caught sending racist emails and other communications to their colleagues and supporters that have contained vicious stereotypes of Barack Obama and his family as primates, the White House overrun with watermelons, and the President as a pimp.
Given the record number of assassination threats against the United States’ first black president, and the rise in the number of White militia groups during his tenure, the repeated association of Barack Obama with ape imagery is highly dangerous: research in social psychology demonstrates how an association between black people and apes subconsciously primes white test-takers to support violence against African-Africans. In this way, racist humor works as an appeal to violence by the White Right, and conservatives more generally, against the United States’ first black president.
Rangel’s claim that the Tea Party is the heir, both metaphorical and literal to those who opposed the Civil Rights Movement, is not empty rhetoric. In fact, there are direct connections between the language, organization, and political philosophy of those who opposed bringing down Jim and Jane Crow of years ago and today’s Tea Party GOP.
Fred Koch, the patriarch of the Koch family, was a founder of the white racist organization known as the John Birch Society, which along with the White Citizens Councils (and other White reactionaries) actively opposed the civil rights of African-Americans.
His sons, Charlie and David Koch, are carrying forward this work through their opposition to school desegregation efforts. In keeping with their elder's politics, the Koch brothers are behind the faux populist Astroturf Tea Party movement.
The Tea Party, and the Republican Party in mass, have embraced the legacy of the Confederacy (and by implication, those who opposed the Civil Rights Movement) by using the rhetoric of “nullification”, “States’ Rights”, and “secession”, as well as advocating for a “Second Civil War” to combat Barack Obama’s policies and (twice) election. It is no coincidence then that appeals to the racial tyranny of the Confederacy by the White Right have accompanied the election of the country’s first African-American president.
The opponents of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement also used similar language in their campaign of “massive resistance” against the Black Freedom Struggle.
In addition, the Tea Party recycles and circulates a childish and facile understanding of the framers and the Constitution as a means of gathering and maintaining support. The Confederacy and opponents of the Civil Rights Movement also used the same imagery of Washington, Jefferson, and the Founding to legitimate the righteousness of their anti-democratic struggle against Black Americans' full rights and citrizenship.
Sophisticated public opinion research on the racial attitudes of Tea Party members, as well as those people who identify with that movement, has revealed that both groups are much more likely to harbor anti-black racial attitudes and prejudices. The consensus of these researchers is that the Tea Party is a movement and set of attitudes laced with what social scientists have termed “white racial resentment” and “symbolic racism.”
Recent research by New York University’s Eric Knowles adds an additional level of nuance and detail to our understanding of how white racism is a strong component in Tea Party GOP ideology. As Dr. Knowles explained to the online publication The Raw Story:
Knowles and his colleagues examined 316 white participants’ racial attitudes, ingroup identity, and identification with tea party over a period of nine months. The researchers found identification with the tea party was associated with anti-black prejudice, libertarian ideology, social conservatism, and belief the nation was in decline.
“It’s important to note that the results concerning racial prejudice are correlational: across all three time points, prejudice was associated with support for the tea party,” Knowles explained.
Supporters of the Tea Party actually become more “white identified” the longer they are affiliated with the organization. It is not only that racists are attracted to the Tea Party—which they are—but, that the Tea Party is a white identity organization which primes and gives conservatives a vocabulary to project their racism through the use of ostensibly “neutral” and “colorblind” rhetoric.
Knowles develops this claim more as he observes:
Our evidence tells us that, if anything, getting into the tea party leads to increases in white racial consciousness. As we describe it, the tea party may act as a political ‘racialization’ experience. Whites may get into the movement for race-neutral reasons (e.g., they’re libertarians or social conservatives), but doing so makes being white more important to them.
Harvard University’s Theda Scokpol and Vanessa Williamson interviewed Tea Party members while researching their book The Tea Party and the Remaking of American Conservatism. Their findings suggest that Tea Party members believe that people of color have a “plantation mentality”, are lazy, and lack a proper work ethic. These are the core elements in what is called “modern” or “symbolic racism”.
Conservatism and racism have converged in post-civil rights era America. The Republican Party is the United States’ de facto “White” political party. Consequently, as one of its most extreme factions, it then follows that the Tea Party is the flag bearer for white racial resentment and modern racism in the Age of Obama.
Not all conservatives are racist. But, most racists are conservative…and they have found their natural home in the Tea Party GOP.
To borrow from Rachel Jeantel, a political organization that lures and attracts white racists cannot help but be full of “creepy ass crackas”. Representative Charlie Rangel simply stated a plain on the face truth about the Tea Party that is supported by a critical mass of evidence—anecdotal, systematic, and empirical.