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What The Tea Party Movement Is Really About

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What The Tea Party Movement Is Really About

What The Tea Party Movement Is Really About

What The Tea Party Movement Is Really About

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Historic re-enactors pose for a photograph with a Tea Party activist near the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Historic re-enactors pose for a photograph with a Tea Party activist near the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I'm going to let you in on a secret. Well, it's not much of a secret to anybody who has ever been my boss.

I believe in speaking up for myself.

Now, some people may think that's a personality thing or even a racial thing, or maybe it's because I was born and raised in New York. Actually, in my mind, it's a philosophical position based on what I have observed over the years, which is this: The more guff you take, the less time you spend focusing on how YOU can take less guff yourself, and the more time you spend obsessing over why other people aren't taking more.

We all know these people, even if they don't recognize themselves. They are the women who, when you want to talk about communicating with your spouse, tell you how all men cheat, so get used to it.

When you want to talk about how caregiving can be more affordable and accessible to the people who need it — and more satisfying for the people who do it — they're the people who want to lecture you about how they crawled back to work after 10 minutes of maternity leave. And they are the people who, when you try to talk about ways law enforcement might be more effective and less racially biased, want to tell you about how — back in the day — the police could beat you to death with impunity.

In other words, they are the people who, when you want to talk about how things can be better, want to tell you why you should be be grateful that things are not worse.

Can I just tell you? I am all for gratitude. But gratitude is not the starting point for change. A starting point is a vision for how the world could be.

This is what came to mind as I pondered the CBS/New York Times survey published last week of the 18 percent of Americans who consider themselves members or supporters of the Tea Party movement. The survey finds, as in fact we have found in our interviews, that these are not the people without health insurance, and these are not the people who have lost jobs; they are in fact wealthier and better educated than the rest of the population. But they are also very pessimistic about the direction of the country — an astonishing 92 percent said the country is on the wrong track. And so they say they are angry.

Needless to say, the racial attitudes of these respondents were of interest to me.

They are far more likely than the general public or even other Republicans (because they are mostly Republican) to say that too much attention has been paid to the problems of black people and that the Obama administration is too worried about black people and the poor.

And this survey comes on the heels of another survey by a conservative media group that suggests that Tea Partiers are dismayed by being tagged as racist.

Now some of this, of course, results from a difference of opinion about what racism is. It amuses me that there are people out there who have no problem describing somebody as that black guy — as if that is the sum total of what is needed to describe someone — when they would themselves be mightily upset to be described as anything less than a red-haired, 6-foot-tall weightlifter-type with a freckle on his left ear. In other words, too many people have no problem making assumptions about other people and grouping them together in ways they would never tolerate themselves.

But that's just one issue.

I suspect the bigger problem is that gratitude-vision equation. My suspicion is that many Tea Partiers do see what's not working in this country, but rather than visualize what could be, are infuriated that others are not more grateful for what just is, even if what is, is not just or fair, or even functional for many people.

I also believe the disconnect with many African-Americans comes, in part, because most African-Americans were raised and steeped in a faith tradition that values justice and believes that transformation is possible. Our community has been led by transformational leaders, like the late Martin Luther King, Jr., and the late Benjamin Hooks, who taught us not just to see what is, but to reach for what could be.

They were angry, too. But in our tradition we call that mix of anger and hope "fiery glad" ... and I wonder whether the Tea Partiers cold take a page from that hymn book.