Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Stalled: Me, The Tea Party And The NAACP

Grounded airplane i i
iStock Photography
Grounded airplane
iStock Photography

I want to tell you about a thought that occurred to me as I sat stewing during hour four of what turned out to be six hours on the tarmac at Washington Reagan National Airport last Thursday as my colleague, Teshima Walker, and I were headed to a conference in San Diego.

And that thought was this: the leadership of the Tea Party and the NAACP have a lot more in common than they think. Why do I say that? Well, the first clue is that they can't stand each other.

You remember that the NAACP recently called upon the Tea Party movement to denounce its racist elements, and conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart decided to retaliate by posting a heavily edited video of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod speaking at an NAACP event. The point was, of course, to make the NAACP look bad. But the larger point, of course, is that people who can't stand each other very often have more in common than they think.

But the reasons I say that go deeper than that.

While the two groups are very different — the NAACP, of course, is a majority black, century-old organization with officers and members and a well established history organized originally to oppose lynching, and the Tea Party movement is an overwhelmingly white, loosely organized coalition that sprang up during the last two years and barely qualifies as an organization at all — the two groups do have, at their core, individuals who banded together because they felt they felt that they had to; because they felt that they were not being heard by people with power. They are both, at their core, grassroots groups (a quaint term, but the right one).

The difference is that they don't agree on who or what they are fighting against.

I was thinking about this while I was cooling my heels on the tarmac. Because the passenger rights law was supposed to put an end to this whole business of hours on the runway with no food or water, or any sign of progress. And, yes, there were brief thunderstorms, which kept us out of the air for safety reasons. And, yes, there was a need to refuel after sitting on the runway waiting for the skies to clear and the planes to reform for takeoff.

But all that does not, to my mind anyway, explain why the American Airlines gate agent all but threatened us by telling us he would not announce the plane's departure if passengers continued to insist on our right — and it is our right — to get some food and water after a long delay. And while it is worth noting that the flight crew eventually did get the gate agent to let us get off the plane, there was also no explanation why, when we finally arrived in Dallas 10 hours later — too late to make our connecting flights — the airline refused to let us have our luggage, even though they knew we had to spend the night there.

Can I Just Tell You? I am wondering why the tea partiers, who get very worked up about what they see as the increasing reach, power and arrogance of government, don't get similarly worked up about the increasing reach, power and arrogance of large corporations. Why aren't they more angry about the insurance company bureaucrats who have as much, or more, to say than your doctor about how long you can stay in the hospital and what treatments you can receive?

I don't know why they're not similarly outraged about banks and mutual funds that continue to reap revenue from huge fees disguised as administrative services. And why aren't they more upset about, well, airlines that seem to have little respect for the health, comfort or dignity of their passengers?

And I really don't understand why people who routinely call upon historical symbols to make their point don't get how offensive some of their racially charged symbolism really is to many people in this country.

But if the tea partiers seem oblivious to historical realities, the NAACP and other civil rights leadership groups sometimes seem — to me — to be blind to the present.

Why don't they notice how often government policies work against the interests of minorities who are trying to create wealth, like taxing and regulatory schemes that are so complicated they make you feel like you need to belong to a secret society to figure them out? Now, why would this be an issue? In part, because before the recession anyway, minorities, in general, and African-Americans, in particular, were starting new businesses at far higher rates than other groups and if these businesses succeed they will go a very long way toward closing the centuries-old wealth gap between minorities and other Americans.

And, with all the talk about education as the civil rights issue of our time, and how the criminal justice system discriminates against black and brown people, I don't understand why these leaders don't seem to have a strategy for addressing the fact that many of the issues of government misconduct they are fighting to correct — ineffective schools, abusive police — are often perpetuated by people who are the very same color as those whose rights and well-being are being compromised.

It really makes me wonder ... why don't these groups get together?

They could call the new group the National Association for the Advancement of Everybody? Or the Sweet Tea Party, to fight for common sense for everybody.

Or does race really matter so much that we refuse to notice when just about everybody who isn't rich or famous or powerful is getting slammed by forces beyond their control, no matter what their color.

As for American Airlines, I'll be calling to ask them for an explanation. I'll let you know if and when I get one.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues