The Tea Party And Race
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Later in the program, the Barbershop guys give their take on the week's news.
But first, we're going to take another look at the Tea Party movement. This week saw a number of events, including a gathering in Boston, the site of the original Tea Party of 1773, where American colonists threw tea into Boston Harbor to express their frustration over British taxation.
This is just the latest gathering of this nascent grassroots movement of those who dislike the Obama administration's tax and spending plans. But while some are giving the movement credit for a few political victories, notably Republican Scott Brown's capturing the Senate seat Democrat Ted Kennedy held for decades, not all is sweet for the Tea Party.
The racial politics of the movement have come under question, including by conservative African-Americans who don't like Obama's policies, but think criticism of him has too often taken on a racist edge. On the other hand, a conservative media watchdog group, the media research center has issued a report this week claiming that it is the Tea Partiers who are being unfairly maligned, especially by the big three television networks as being racially motivated.
There's a lot to talk about here, so we've called on two people who've been following this story and this movement closely. Joining us now is Cynthia Tucker. She is a syndicated columnist with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a frequent guest on this program. She's here in our Washington, D.C. studio.
Also on the phone with us is Lenny McAllister. He's a syndicated political commentator and author of the book "Diary of a Mad Black Proud Young Conservative." He will be speaking at several Tea Party events this weekend, but he's also questioned some of their rhetoric, and we caught up with him on his way to some of those events.
So, welcome to you both. Thank you both for joining us.
Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Columnist, Constitution): Thank you, Michel.
Mr. LENNY McALLISTER (Author, "Diary of a Mad Black Proud Young Conservative"): Thanks for having us.
MARTIN: First thing, Lenny, I wanted to ask is why are you speaking at these events this weekend? What is your message going to be?
Mr. McALLISTER: Well, my message is trying to clarify the imagery of taking back America and what that needs to mean. And one of the speeches that I will be giving talks about what TBA means, which is Take Back America, versus TEA, Taxed Enough Already. And making sure that people understand that that TBA means taking it back from expansive government, not necessarily taking it back from the first black president or taking it back from an expanded role of women or taking it back from immigrants, because that is the wrong message.
So, this is an opportunity for me as an African-American conservative to have a platform to say, look, let's talk about the right things that we need to take America from, and let's not let the message get to a point where it promotes hatred, versus healthy debate within America, and an embracing of American values.
MARTIN: I do want to ask you, though, do you feel that some members of this movement, or too many, or however many members of this movement are motivated by racial animus, even if they don't think so themselves.
Mr. McALLISTER: Well, my take is there are some people that have taken it too far and they have used this movement, a good movement at its core, to justify some of their underlying hatred. There are some people out there. I've seen the signs and I've said this on other interviews and I've said this in other articles where when I see the signs, I confronted, I've confronted it from the podium. I confronted people face to face.
You know, I'll have an opportunity coming up on Saturday to speak at an event in Greenville, South Carolina, where Tom Tancredo will also be. And you can rest assured that part of my speech will address his comment of having literacy tests needed to allow people to vote. I obviously stand against that. I think it's akin to the 21st century version of grandfather clauses and poll taxes.
If you don't have African-American conservatives willing to stand up to those type of situations, this movement goes down the wrong path and we don't get to maximize it as a holistic nation.
MARTIN: Cynthia, I want to get your take on this. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll published yesterday gives us a picture of many people in the Tea Party movement. It says the 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45. The study also finds that Tea Party supporters are more likely than the general public and Republicans to say that too much has been made of the problems facing black people.
It says that 25 percent of the Tea Partiers versus 11 percent of the general public believes the Obama White House disproportionately favors blacks over whites. And I want to know what's your take on this.
Ms. TUCKER: Well, my take is that none of this came as any surprise to me. I think the polling is wonderful because it does allow me to speak in public more knowledgeably, not just to guess about who I think they are but to be able to say that this disproportionately, for example, they believe that the president favors blacks over whites.
And one of the many things that's interesting about that on the flip side, of course, from the left, President Obama is being pushed by people like Tavis Smiley, who say he ought to have a black agenda when the president has studiously avoided having anything that resembles a black agenda.
MARTIN: Can I just ask you, what do you think is the chicken and what's the egg here? Is it that concern about benefits, advantages disproportionately accruing to blacks is what drives the Tea Partiers' opposition to President Obama? Or is it that opposition to President Obama makes people believe that benefits are accruing disproportionately to blacks and other minorities? You know, what do you think is driving the train?
Where, like, Lenny McAllister is saying that he thinks it's really more concerned about small government and that theirs is a fringe element within that movement.
Ms. TUCKER: Sorry to disagree with Lenny here, because I don't think that Tea Partiers are that overly motivated by expansive government. If so, I would think that they would have been a lot more unhappy with the Bush administration. We didn't see a Tea Party movement start then.
But the simple fact of the matter is the budget deficit was run up by President Bush. So I would think that if Tea Partiers were animated solely by smaller government, we would have seen the Tea Party movement start a lot sooner.
MARTIN: Yeah. Well, Lenny, what about that point? I mean, the historically high deficit was accrued under President George W. Bush, but you didn't see the Tea Party movement then. What is your sense? What's the chicken and what's the egg here?
Mr. McALLISTER: Well, there's been a buildup. People forget that George W. Bush wasn't popular in 2004. 2006 and 2008, Republicans were so disgusted with Republicans in Washington that they stayed home or they voted for the other side of the aisle, which is why the proof is in the pudding that there were conservatives that were highly upset with the Bush administration, particularly the second half of the Bush administration.
And then you couple that with the spending that came into being once the super majority and the Obama administration came in and people said enough is enough. We also have to look at the thing such as financial crisis. They weren't happy about the TARP. You look at the unemployment rate. You couple that all together. And then you look at the spending. That's enough to bring a lot more people out.
And then, again, from there, as you accumulate these numbers, you're going to have some people that are going to have some questionable motives that will all of a sudden find themselves among the masses.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with conservative columnist and political strategist Lenny McAllister. He's actually on his way to speak at a number of Tea Party events and Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker. And we're talking about the racial politics of the Tea Party movement.
Can I ask you each about this other incident that's gotten a lot of attention? As the health care bill was being debated, there was this whole question about whether a number of lawmakers were verbally and physically abused by some activists who were demonstrating in opposition to the bill outside of the Capitol. Some of these protestors were associated with the Tea Party movement. And it has been reported that, you know, some persons used the N-word with Congressman John Lewis, who of course is a hero of the civil rights movement.
Now, Andrew Breitbart, who's a commentator for the Washington Times and got a lot of attention for his investigative work criticizing the grassroots organization ACORN is now saying he'll pay, you know, thousands of dollars for proof that this incident actually happened. And I'd like to ask each of you, what is your take on this?
Ms. TUCKER: I am utterly fascinated. Andrew Breitbart, of course, is a very conservative activist. For the most part, sitting Republicans have avoided suggesting that John Lewis is a liar. I think that there are two things that are interesting about this. And one is that the Tea Party movement is clearly, extremely defensive about its image and any allegations that there is a racist fringe associated with it. And I happen to agree with Lenny on this point. I think those in the Tea Party movement who are actually outright racist are probably a small minority of that group.
But I also think that Andrew Breitbart's larger motive here is to question the mainstream press. To make it seem as though we have done something wrong in reporting that this incident occurred without so-called proof. As I said to a commenter on my blog, the people most likely to be standing out there with video cameras were members of the Tea Party movement. Are they going to come forward and say, yes, we have proof that this happened? That's unlikely.
MARTIN: Lenny, what's your take on this episode? Does it mean anything, this whole kerfuffle over whether or not these words were used or not?
Mr. McALLISTER: I've heard both sides of this argument. I've heard that, well, there's never been any tape that's come up. I've heard that why would he lie? I've heard all kinds of stuff. I generally don't get into it because I look at this: I can still go back to incidents when I've been at Tea Parties and have seen images of President Barack Obama with a bone through his nose. I've seen images where they had Barack Obama standing in front of the White House and on the back of the inscription of the White House it says: da crib. Would you have done that with George W. Bush?
And, again, they're not common, but they have happened. It is not that far of a stretch to say, okay, now if I've seen that among 5,000 out of 50,000 people, did one person possibly cross the line? It's definitely possible.
MARTIN: So, where do you think the movement goes from here?
Mr. McALLISTER: First it goes to honor, education, activism. If we can debate with honor, and we can be more educated on the issues and we can stay active, the conservative movement can have a rightful place in America. I think we can take back seats as Republicans and as conservatives. And furthermore, I think that we can start going to some of these minority areas and to start going into these urban areas and saying, look, we have solutions to offer. Let's have an honest debate about this.
One of the things we're working on with Russell Simmons, Michael Schoolnik and others at the Global Grind, is a hip hop politics summit that we're looking to put together in New York City over the summer, where we take both sides of the political coin and we start talking about urban solutions. And if we can get to that point of time as a party movement, we will not only be successful, but America will benefit as a result. But it will take honor, education and activism.
MARTIN: Cynthia, I'm going to give you the final word. I gave Lenny the first word, I'm going to give you the last word. Where do you think the movement goes from here?
Ms. TUCKER: I think that it is as a collection of many different points of view about government. Many of the Tea Partiers are on Medicare or Medicaid. And those are among the biggest government programs. They cost the budget the most and they don't want to see those cut. So, I think it will be interesting to see what happens in the midterm elections and whether this group is able to influence the outcome.
MARTIN: Cynthia Tucker is a syndicated columnist with the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She's a Pulitzer Prize winner. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Lenny McAllister is a syndicated political commentator and author of the book "Diary of a Mad Black PYC," that stands for proud young conservative. He came to us by phone on his way to several events sponsored by the Tea Party this weekend. I thank you both so much for speaking to us.
Ms. TUCKER: Thank you, Michel.
Mr. McALLISTER: Thank you.
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