Are tea partiers racist? That question has triggered a flood of impassioned commentary in recent months. Opponents depict the movement as a band of cranky old white people brimming with racial resentment, as evidenced by the inflammatory signs that pop up at their rallies and coded language about "taking our country back." Supporters say the movement is motivated quite simply by resistance to big government and that the occasional flashes of racism are overhyped by the media and representative of only a small fringe. As Gallup's Frank Newport recently wrote, "Each side of the political spectrum appears to have a vested interest in portraying the Tea Party movement in the specific way that best fits their ideological positioning." Yet neither side has had much empirical data to draw on.
So a new poll by researchers at the University of Washington caught my eye. The findings are sure to fan the flames further. "People who approve of the Tea Party, more than those who don't approve, have more racist attitudes," says Christopher Parker, a University of Washington professor who directed the survey. "And not only that, but more homophobic and xenophobic attitudes." For instance, respondents were asked whether they agreed with various characterizations of different racial groups. Only 35 percent of those who strongly approve of the tea party agreed that blacks are hardworking, compared with 55 percent of those who strongly disapprove of the tea party. On whether blacks were intelligent, 45 percent of the tea-party supporters agreed, compared with 59 percent of the tea-party opponents. And on the issue of whether blacks were trustworthy, 41 percent of the tea-party supporters agreed, compared with 57 percent of the tea-party opponents.
The survey, which included about 1,000 respondents in six battleground states (like Michigan and Nevada) and California, found similar margins on questions regarding Latinos. And tea-party supporters were far more likely than opponents to say that immigrants take jobs from people living here (59 percent agreed with that statement), that immigration from foreign countries should be decreased (53 percent agreed), and that undocumented immigrants in the U.S. should be deported immediately (45 percent agreed).
These results cast the tea-party crowd in a different light from other recent surveys. A March Gallup poll, for instance, showed that tea-party supporters "skew right politically" but that "demographically, they are generally representative of the public at large." Tea-party backers were 79 percent white, while the country as a whole is 75 percent white. In other categories, like age, education, and employment, they also appeared similar to the average American adult. The University of Washington study, however, suggests that in terms of their views, the tea partiers aren't quite so mainstream after all. Which is sure to provide fresh ammo to the movement's critics.