The Tea Party Isn't Racist

At this week's NAACP annual meeting, members voted to censure the Tea Party as "racist." But it's the NAACP that's the throwback, argues Tunku Varadarajan.

07.14.10 12:57 AM ET

NAACP: Can we all agree that it stands for the National Association for the Advancement of Cynical Politics?

The proper expansion of “NAACP” has a profoundly archaic ring to it. I know, I know: The retention of that primordial name—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—has to do with safeguarding history; and an irrefutably impressive history it is, too. But can anyone deny that the “colored” part of the organization’s name is no longer preservative of anything that is at all meaningful?

Here we have the Tea Party, one of the nation’s most organic, Athenian, democratic movements, being attacked by a political organization—the NAACP—that is among the most sclerotic, dinosaurian, and cadaverous of America’s political groupings.

Colored: Who the heck says that in the America of today, unless you’re a very, very old friend of the late highwayman (as in dedicated asphalt, not armed robbery) Robert C. Byrd? Which is why no member of this once-courageous black organization will spell out its full name. Everyone says, instead, “N-double A-CP”: To elongate the abbreviation is to expose oneself to derisive—or, worse, baffled—inquisition. (“Dad, Mom, what’s with the ‘colored’ thing?”)

The NAACP, this vestigial bone on the American body politic, has thrust itself into the headlines by voting, at its annual meeting Tuesday, to censure as “racist” the Tea Party movement. This controversial public rebuke—delivered a day after the first lady, Michelle Obama, addressed the NAACP’s conference—has opened up a raw, new racial front in the run-up to the November elections. In effect, the self-congratulatory, post-racial Obama camp is reaching for the crudest weapon in the Democratic arsenal: the racial blunderbuss.

Of course, desperate times call for desperate measures, and the NAACP is going back to an old playbook. The NAACP is resorting to the Jacksonian (Jesse, not Andrew) ploy to use the race card (a) to rally blacks to the mid-terms; and (b) to intimidate the mainstream media, so that it doesn’t report critically on a liberal administration, urging it instead to focus on the perceived sins of the Tea Party movement.

If black Americans are suffering due to our current economic woes, Obama’s own policies are hardly helping them. The NAACP can’t bitch about “the Man” anymore because the Man is Obama. And so instead it turns its racially monolithic vituperation on the Tea Party, which has never been in power, and has had no impact on the economic condition of black Americans—except to advocate policies (smaller government, lower taxes, radically reduced deficits, etc.) that would likely improve the standard of living of all Americans (blacks included). In fact, the Tea Party is a greater friend of black Americans, one might say, than the administration, and is much more representative of America than the NAACP. (There are many more black members of the Tea Party—however you define that movement—than there are, by definition, non-black members of the NAACP.)

The NAACP senses—knows—that the electoral momentum is building inexorably against President Obama. And they hope to slow it by playing the race card. Let there be no doubt that nothing would have been tabled at this NAACP meeting without President Obama’s imprimatur—especially with the first lady as the keynote speaker. Our first black president—with his lowest approval ratings ever—is using his race politically, through a surrogate. But shameless as all this is, it may have some effect. As Shelby Steele, a political scientist at the Hoover Institution, told me, “racist stigma in America is so powerful that truth and reason look meager next to it. Any populist movement—such as the Tea Party—that is predominantly white, has this vulnerability of seeming to be a throwback to the nation’s racist past.”

Michelle Obama’s participation as keynote speaker could prove toxic to the Democrats in the run-up to the November elections—even though she confined her remarks to obesity and the like, and steered clear of references to the Tea Party. Many in America already believe that she is a black militant in mufti, and her headlining of a gathering which cast the Tea Party as racist will have been noted by a good many ordinary, non-radical, middle-of-the-road Americans—not to mention Tea Party activists, who will be sure (and who can blame them?) to put together little YouTube packages from the NAACP shindig, cutting from Michelle O to Ben Jealous, the NAACP president who was the resolution’s prime mover.

So here we have the Tea Party, one of the nation’s most organic, Athenian, democratic movements, being attacked by a political organization—the NAACP—that is among the most sclerotic, dinosaurian, and cadaverous of America’s political groupings. When race is in play, there is vulnerability all around. The NAACP, and President Obama, will learn that in the months ahead.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)