Op-Ed: Tea Party Ideals Work For Black Voters

The NAACP created a national controversy last week when it condemned the Tea Party for harboring "racist elements" in its midst. Sophia Nelson says, as a black woman, she should be on the NAACP's side of the debate — but that Tea Party ideals resonate with many black voters, including her.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

And now the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page.

As you probably heard, the NAACP criticized elements of the Tea Party as racist last week, which prompted any number of denials from, among others, Vice President Joe Biden and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Sophia Nelson writes that while she deplores the hatred she sees from some Tea Party supporters, even some Tea Party leaders, she also agrees with protests against increasingly burdensome taxes and a government grown too large and too intrusive which fails to enforce immigration laws.

No community, she argues, needs to hear this message more than the black community. So does black America need its own Tea Party? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sophia Nelson is a contributor to The Root and BET. She joins us on the phone from her office in Virginia. Nice to have you back.

Ms. SOPHIA A. NELSON (Contributor, theroot.com and BET): Hey, Neal. Hi. Nice to talk to you.

CONAN: And you wrote that you're supposed to be on the NAACP's side of this argument.

Ms. NELSON: Well, you know me, I love to be provocative in these articles. I always try to be that centrist voice of reason that when both sides are shrill, I try to, like, bring everybody back in and say, let's talk about this reasonably. And what I was saying was simply this: African-Americans are, as you know, have been deemed to be monolithic in our politics and the way we all think, et cetera.

And while I have no challenge with the fact that the NAACP is saying, okay, if you have racist elements in the Tea Party, you need to be accountable to that, that's the right thing to do. But when I - my bigger challenge is, okay, where does that get us? Okay, we've done a resolution. We've had press releases go back and forth, counter charges, charges. Has that put one job, you know, on the table for black America? Has that helped to pay the bills? Has it helped to bring the 401(k) back to get the house that was foreclosed on?

And all I'm saying to the African-American communities, you may not like the actors in the Tea Party - got it, get it, agree with you on that. However, some of the principles that the Tea Party people are espousing are fundamental American principles. They're Democratic principles. They're principles that we all should believe in and support and, you know, be willing to stand up and argue for. And I'm saying that in the black community, no one has been harder hit economically since this recession. Every economist would agree with me. Many articles have been written on this: Black male unemployment, in some cases, as high as 35 to 50 percent in the United States of America, Great Depression levels, and yet no one's talking about it. There's no agenda. It's not changing. And that's my challenge.

CONAN: Have you ever been to a Tea Party?

Ms. NELSON: I have not. I opened up with that in my article that I had not and probably never will go to one.

CONAN: So where did you see these elements of racism that you deplore?

Ms. NELSON: Well, obviously, I watch the same news everyone else watches and I see the signs. I've heard the, you know, vitriol back and forth on different, you know, TV shows and programs where people are talking. John Lewis is a friend. He's been a friend for many years, someone I admire. And he - if he says he was spat upon and called the N word, I believe him because he's a man of honor and integrity. So I have no reason to think he would make something like that up.

CONAN: On the other side, you take heart from the criticism of Mark Williams, the national spokesman for the Tea Party Express that we've also seen in the last couple of days.

Ms. NELSON: Absolutely do. And I applaud those who have done that. They should have done it earlier, although I think that Mark really went over the line with that letter that he did, you know, parodying Ben Jealous of the NAACP and making fun of slavery and Lincoln and, you know, just really offensive behavior.

Look, I'm an American. I believe in free speech. I - you know, if the Klan wants to march down the street in front of my house, I want to see the Klan marching because I actually personally want to know what folks are doing. I don't like undercover operators. So I'm all for free speech. That doesn't frighten me.

What does concern me though is the tenor of the tone of our debate on race in this country. Obama was elected in 2008. And here we are in 2010 with the first black president and I would argue that race is more kind of scary than ever. I mean, I'm not old enough to remember the civil rights movement - and I'm not blaming that on President Obama by any stretch. I'm just saying that we have gotten really ugly again about this race issue. And that's unfortunate.

CONAN: On both sides?

Ms. NELSON: Yeah, on both sides.

CONAN: We've also seen the rise recently, or mentioned recently, of a new Black Panther Party.

Ms. NELSON: Yup.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. NELSON: Absolutely. And again, you know this. You can appreciate this. You've written articles yourself, that not everything you write makes it into the final cut. And I actually had a blurb in there about the Black Panther Party guys who said, you know, kill the cracker babies, whatever. That is abhorrent. It's disgusting. It's wrong. And it, likewise, ought to be repudiated by black leaders in this country.

I am increasingly concerned about my community, the black community, how we don't police ourselves, whether it's rap music, the way we - misogynist behavior. Whatever we do, we don't - we aren't willing to call ourselves out, but we're willing to call others out. And that bothers me.

CONAN: We're talking with Sophia Nelson, author of the forthcoming book "Black. Female. Accomplished. Redefined."

Ms. NELSON: Absolutely.

CONAN: And she's with us on the phone from her office in Virginia. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Let's talk with Cal, Cal with us from Birmingham.

CAL (Caller): Good afternoon. My main question is: Do we need a black Tea Party? Is that the statement I'm hearing? Is that...

Ms. NELSON: You know, that's the title the article that it was given.

CAL: Okay. Okay. So let me just address how insidious that statement is. The statement seems to say that black people should behave in an undignified manner (technical difficulties) another corporate entity. When we have other corporate entities - the Urban League, NAACP, et cetera - which do a great job, but we don't need another group. And we definitely don't need to be as angry or compared in any way to the Tea Party. I think that's insidious.

Ms. NELSON: Can I respond, Neal?

CONAN: Please go ahead.

Ms. NELSON: No, I just disagree. He's entitled to his opinion. I don't agree that these organizations have been effective for all the points that I just made about the state of black America right now economically. Read the Urban League's report. They will say everything I just said echoed in a much more dramatic way about the numbers of the disproportionate impact of how black people have been affected by this recession and everything else since '07.

And the point I'm making is not for anyone to act undignified. I myself don't conduct myself that way, nor would I ever. I'm saying get activated, do something, get out there, protest, say something. Do those things that our ancestors did that got us to the place where many of us (unintelligible)...

CAL: That's wonderful, but you coated it in an ugly spray paint.

Ms. NELSON: Oh, it's not coated.

CAL: Yes. Your title the beginning of the statement. So I would say...

Ms. NELSON: The title was picked by The Washington Post copy editors (unintelligible)...

CAL: I would say - and I'll be finished quickly - I would say that it is correct that African-Americans should be proactive, involved, write great books and be aggressive for their freedom and their humanity, as should all Americans. But I would never ever, ever put such an ugly bubble on a beautiful idea.

Ms. NELSON: I'll tell The Post copy editors that when I speak with them. I didn't pick the title. I never do.

CONAN: All right. Cal, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. Let's go next to - this is Angela, Angela with us from Murfreesboro in Tennessee.

ANGELA (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

ANGELA: I would have to say that I absolutely agree with her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANGELA: I do not agree that African-Americans should get another party going. I actually think that there'll be plenty of Tea Party people that do not have that angry persona...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ANGELA: ...or ugly persona that they believe is there. There's tons of us that would reach out honestly and willingly to make anything for humanity work in a better way. I don't think that it's appropriate to say they need to segregate themselves any further by establishing yet another entity to try to prove a point. I think they need to really be more cohesive with the America that wants to better themselves and get out of this overgrowth of development for the federal government.

CONAN: Angela, do you - are you a Tea Party supporter?

ANGELA: I am.

CONAN: And have you been to some of those meetings?

ANGELA: No. I've just done what I've seen online with the time - I am - I'm in school full time, and I have three children.

CONAN: Uh-huh. Well, obviously, I can understand having a lot of time with all those responsibilities.

ANGELA: It's hard.

CONAN: But you agree, again, with the message, if not sometimes the way the message is delivered.

ANGELA: I believe that it's shown in an ugly light on television, and it's not really the way that it is. I think that there's plenty of Tea Party people that would love to see the black community come in and be cohesive and work together with them. And that would be great. They segregate themselves constantly themselves, and we don't do it to them. They just chose to. And it's not that way anymore. We need to work together. I have tons of friends that would want that and would love that. And it just isn't happening. So, you know, maybe that part can change.

Ms. NELSON: I actually agree with her. And again, articles are edited and things get, you know, taken out that you would like to have in. And I think if anybody were really to read my piece in context, obviously, what I'm saying to the African-American community is don't let the bad actors keep you from the principles that may apply, that may help your life. But more importantly, I would love to see us come together, too. And you can tell from the tone of the way I always write...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NELSON: ...I don't get into name callings and things like that. I don't agree with that. And I'm disappointed that the Tea Party isn't more inclusive. As I said, it's 77 percent Caucasian by the numbers that I've seen in the Gallup poll, which means that 23 percent of it is people of color, presumably. That's the assumption we have to make, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NELSON: But what I'm saying is, is that I think that I agree with her. I wish we could come together. We shouldn't have separate organizations. But clearly, what I am saying to black folks is if you cannot digest what you've seen on TV and you feel like this entity hates black people and hates the president, even if that's not true, then you can at least borrow the principles and the substance of it to see if those principles will help better the issues that we may have in our community.

ANGELA: Absolutely. Absolutely.

CONAN: Angela, thanks very much for the call.

ANGELA: Thank you, guys. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Here's an email from Jim in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Could your guest please state what so-called American values the Tea Party represents? She said we should all argue in favor of them. I'm white, but do consider the Tea Party racist and dangerous. Of course, I live in South Carolina, so the group here might be different than others.

Ms. NELSON: Well, in an earlier piece in TheRoot.com on Thursday, that kind of kicked off me leading into the Sunday piece, I talked about that more in-depth. I mean, I saw this recent show on The History Channel, "The Story of Us," and it was fascinating. And it talked about the founding of the country and the revolution. And the principles of the Tea Party, if you think about why they chose that name, right, the Boston Tea Party...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NELSON: ...which is that they feel like there's taxation - I don't - I can't - I don't know if you could say it without representation, because we do have representative government now. But whether it's effective, that's a subjective issue. All I'm saying is is that the fundamental principles: freedom, individual liberties, civil liberties, the right to keep and bear arms, and, you know, the immigration issue, the enforcement of our borders, which is a federal issue - exclusively, we agree.

But the fact of the matter is is that, you know, some states like Arizona feel like, hey, the government's not doing its job. And so you have people in America, I think - of course, mostly Caucasian, but I think from all stripes -who are feeling like - and I don't think it just started under Obama. Maybe people just decided to start protesting now for whatever reasons. But I think we could all argue that our government's been making a slippery slope for a long time, well before President Obama.

President Bush did a lot of government spending. He grew government. He created the Department of Homeland Security. Whether that was needed or not, you know, we can argue. But my point is is that government's been getting bigger, taxes have been getting more, not less. They're about to go back up again. And so, you know, this is the fundamental - these are the fundamental principles that people are - I think all Americans rally around because they're the principles upon which we were founded on. They're just very basic principles.

CONAN: We're talking with Sophia Nelson on the Opinion Page. You can find a link to our op-ed at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

You just talked about burdensome taxes. And you mention that in your piece, as well. And slightly off the subject of your op-ed, but there was just a analysis by the Bureau of Economic Analysis that said taxes, federal, state, local, are at historic lows, lowest level since 1950.

Ms. NELSON: Hmm. That's interesting. When I look in my pay check, I don't see that. Maybe it's because I'm single and, you know, you don't get the deductions, single, head of household - I mean, household, I'm sorry - and children and all those things. But I don't know anybody I know, as I talked about in the piece, who thinks they're not taxed too much. And I'm not just talking about, like...

CONAN: Or you could still believe they're too high, but they are, in fact, historically low.

Ms. NELSON: Well, that depends on who you have saying that. I bet if I go to CATO or Heritage or one of those sites, they're going to tell me they're historically high. How much you bet?

CONAN: Well, I bet if John McCain were president, you'd be trumpeting lower taxes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here's an email question, this from Judy in Cleveland. If the Tea Party principles include healthy skepticism of rushed, runaway spending, then black Americans need to be involved. However, our Tea Party would have to hold its spokespeople accountable for inflammable, reckless and just plain wrong, and wrongly intentioned propaganda and questionable funding and backing.

Ms. NELSON: Not sure I understand that question.

CONAN: Well, it's a comment, really. She says if Tea Party principles include healthy skepticism of rushed, runaway spending, which I think you would agree with...

Ms. NELSON: Yeah.

CONAN: ...then black people do need to be involved. But it would have to hold its spokespeople accountable...

Ms. NELSON: Right.

CONAN: ...if they make statements that are incorrect or wrong.

Ms. NELSON: Right. I think that, again, we all agree - I think Vice President Biden gets a lot of respect. He should get a lot of respect for - and again, I'm not surprised that he would say what he did. That's just the kind of guy he is. But - that he would say, look, it's not an all-racist movement. It's got factions in there, and, you know, those folks should be held accountable. And I agree with that. I said that very sternly in my piece. I opened with that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NELSON: So, you know, I agree that if we're going to have movements just like the Black Panthers, the NAACP, these kind of comments, when we, you know, shoot them at other Americans, they're not helpful. They divide us. And I'm -you know, I'm not naive. I don't think it's "Kumbaya" time, and everybody gets along. But I do think that we can show each other respect and not, you know, say some of the foul things that we say to one another on these TV shows or on email or blogs, or whatever.

CONAN: Let's get Anthony on the line, Anthony with us from San Antonio.

ANTHONY (Caller): Yes. I do agree completely with Sophia, and I think that one of the things that has happened to the African-American community is that somehow, we've frozen in time. We got voting rights, and we've got a whole bunch of rights and everything - just froze after that.

And I think that what the Tea Party embodies is something the African-American community could actually embrace and run with, and address issues that are really bringing our communities down and basically getting us away from what we struggled for for so long.

Ms. NELSON: And you can take that to its next logical conclusion - and I've talked about this on TALK OF THE NATION many times with other guests - about the Republican Party, because I think it's fair to say I'm going to lend it probably a good number of Tea Party people are in the Republican Party. I'm guessing. I don't know that for a fact.

But I'm saying that if you look at the Republican Party - I joined because of a guy named Jack Kemp, who was fabulous and inspired me and made me want to be a Republican. But I can tell you that the Republican Party has the same challenge as the Tea Party in that its makeup is much more than 77 percent Caucasian in the GOP. And so what happens is the message gets lost with the messenger.

And what I'm saying is is that's unfortunate, because a lot of, quote, unquote "conservative principles" could be very helpful in the African-American community. You know, and so they get lost and they only get considered. Why? Because African-Americans are largely Democrat. We know that that's - the numbers are 90 percent are registered Democrats.

So, you know what I mean? It's unfortunate that we lose good things because we're such a monolith, or at least perceived as a monolith in how we think and reason as black people. And that troubles me, because I don't see that with my white friends or my Asian friends or Hispanic friends or other - they aren't labeled like we are.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NELSON: And I think that marginalizes us in a very bad way.

CONAN: Anthony, thanks very much for the call.

ANTHONY: Thank you.

CONAN: And Sophia, always nice to talk to you.

Ms. NELSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Sophia Nelson, a contributor to The Root and BET, with us from her office in Virginia. Again, there's a link to her article at npr.org.

Tomorrow, we remember the Mariel boatlift 30 years later. Join us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.