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04.15.10

Dispatches From the Tea Party Express

They may be overwhelmingly old and white, but Tea Partiers in Washington, D.C., are falling over themselves to declare their not-racist, reasonable intentions. Benjamin Sarlin reports from this morning’s rally. Plus, Tunku Varadarajan on the truth about Tea Partiers.

The news on Tea Partiers this week has focused on their demographics, with a new poll in The New York Times showing their members skew old, white, and male. It makes sense when you hear it—it’s a mirror image of the groups that tended to go for John McCain in 2008—but the numbers really don’t do it justice.

At a rally on 14th St NW and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., the average age of the crowd was at least 55, a number brought down by the numerous grandchildren present with their families, and overwhelmingly, blindingly white. It’s a topic the Tea Partiers are particularly sensitive about: Perhaps the most common signs at the rally were explicit rebuttals to the notion that their movement is based on race. “Political Dissent is NOT Racism!” read one. “If Nobama Were White I’d Still Dislike” read another. Birther signs, though present, were few and far between.

Organizers sought to highlight speakers who break the mold. Lloyd Marcus, an African American Tea Party activist, opened the morning rally with some pro-Tea Party songs.

“Are y’all racists?” he shouted in the middle of one number. “No!” the crowd answered back.

Click Image to View Our Gallery of Dispatches from the Tea Party Express

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The number one source of both youth and color at the rally were young entrepreneurs selling bright yellow “Don’t Tread on Me Flags” to protesters for a commission. I approached several of them, each of whom was careful to disassociate himself or herself from the rally—or at least appear diplomatic.

“No way,” Mark, a 25-year old African American flag salesman, responded when asked if he agreed with the protesters. As for his own views: “I plea the Fifth.”

“I find them interesting,” Gules, a French immigrant who looked to be in his early 20s, said of the Tea Partiers as he waved a handful of the flags. “There are two sides to every issue.”

The merchants were greeted with skepticism at times, however. “Are you with ACORN?” Jack Staver, a 56-year-old attendee from Woodstock, Georgia, said to a young dark-skinned flag salesman.

“I am very suspicious,” Staver, who works as an instructor on compliance with OSHA standards, told me afterward. His chief concern was that the merchants might be anti-Tea Party infiltrators, sent in to sell flags with pointed edges on the hopes that police would then declare them as  weapons and use it as pretext to arrest protesters. “This is what they do, they take a good thing and flip it,” he said.

Indeed, the infiltration concept was a frequent topic of discussion among the crowd. Reports this week that a group of pranksters were planning to crash Tea Parties with crazy signs and slogans had attendees on high alert.

I did manage to catch up with Chuck Nesby, a retired Navy pilot and the only black protester that I encountered over three hours in the crowd.

“This isn’t a race issue,” he volunteered (I hadn’t asked), adding that the deficit was his chief concern. As for the lack of color at the rallies: “As they learn the issues, they’ll be here. A lot of blacks don’t have a clear understanding of economics.”

One topic that wasn’t addressed on a single sign: anything having to do with financial reform. Despite the frequent anti-Wall Street and anti-bailout rhetoric, the bill making its way through the Senate seemed to elicit no response from protesters. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky labeled it a second “bailout” bill, despite strong opposition to the legislation by banks, whose shareholders and management could actually be wiped out during another economic crisis if it passes.

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.