Finding the words for "White Supremacy" in the Tea Party

Editor's note:
Chris puts this piece forward as a tentative position. It is our hope that this piece will spark a hearty debate on a subject around which Chris states,"I actually think they're the only thing resembling a social 'movement' right now."


by Chris, AZ
At the first tea bagger convention this weekend in Nashville Tom Tancredo – noted white supremacist and former Congressional architect of scads of anti-immigrant legislature – opened with a speech that would have made David Duke or Bull Connor proud. He called for a return to segregationist policies using all of the thinly-veiled white-supremacist rhetoric that he and his ilk are known for, letting the tea baggers know that “because we don’t have a civics literacy test to vote, people who couldn’t even spell vote, or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House named Barack Hussein Obama”. This, of course, can be read as “because we let people of color vote, we ended up with Obama” and the ‘therefore’ is “we should not let people of color vote”, but the subtext is so obvious that I need not point it out.

It was so obvious, in fact, that some tea-bagging convention-goers thought it might be a little too brazen. The Guardian quoted Mark Skoda, a convention organizer, as saying he “would have preferred he didn't use that form of words", a sentiment which has been echoed by white supremacists all over the internet. For those of us who prefer less obtuse language, this website comment on his speech sums it up quite concisely: “that was a stupid thing to say.....even though it's true". So why is it that making plain the agenda of the tea-bagger movement, something that everyone across the entire political spectrum knows to be true, is making people so uncomfortable?

Since the 1960’s, liberals and conservatives alike have been scrambling to make the color line kinder, gentler, and more invisible – especially for white folks. Decisions by the Supreme Court hailed as the great victories for the Civil Rights Movement, such as Brown v. Board of Education, served the interests of the white ruling elites, while only granting Black folks the bare minimum of humanity. Derrick Bell writes in And We Are Not Saved that “the civil rights decisions of the Warren Court were profoundly conservative and protected the economic and political status quo [the class line and the color line respectively] by responding to the pleas for justice by blacks and other severely disadvantaged groups just enough to siphon off discontent, thereby limiting the chances that the existing social order would pay more than minimal costs for the reforms achieved”.

In other words, the color line is very resilient and very flexible. At a very low cost, the institutions that survive and thrive under white supremacy were able to obscure their defenses. White supremacy simply became racism, something that exists in the minds of individuals and functions like a disease that needs to be healed, not as a system designed to protect the bourgeoisie from attack by those most exploited by them. As the decades following the civil rights movement wore on, and especially in the 1980’s, ‘racist’ became something that not only white people could be, but something that people of color could be too–and racism became something that could even be ‘reversed’ against white people! Racial prejudice was now said to be based on cultural misunderstandings fueled by misguided sentiments from a previous generation. It was also largely in the 1980’s that the cure for this ‘disease’ was developed: Multiculturalism.

Merriam-Webster defines multicultural as “of, relating to, reflecting, or adapted to diverse cultures” and says that it entered the dictionary in 1941. All of the actions spelled out by this definition can be accomplished without ever conceding cultural superiority and without full and complete equality for all people. What it simply boils down to is the acceptance that there are cultures that exist outside of white folks’ culture (which should be a no-brainer, considering that the whole of ‘white culture’ is just the negation of the culture of folks of color, but I digress). Multiculturalism creates a convenient disguise for a system that still operates by subjugating folks of color, still requires a cheap, easily controllable labor force to maintain capitalism in the United States. Multiculturalism provides the framework that any discussion of race must fit into. Politicians of all stripes use code words like “post-racial” and “colorblind” daily. They know that whether or not they believe in multiculturalism (almost none of them do), terms such as these will always serve to obscure their true intentions.

What we see poking out from behind the reactions to Tancredo’s speech is the ugly head of the color line. He effectively pulled the veil back for a second and said that the only way that tea baggers can maintain the privileges of the white middle-class is a return to Jim Crow policies for Black and Brown folks. People were not shocked by the solution he proposed, but by the way he proposed it. For tea-baggery to maintain its populist appeal, for the political entities that are born from it to remain credible, and for the color line to retain its current strength and become stronger, the true intent must remain hidden behind a mask of acceptance. Legal segregation was dismantled because without a kinder, gentler color line, unrest would continue in communities of color. The Watts Rebellion in 1965, the Detroit and Newark Rebellions in 1967 and countless other less well known uprisings were causing panic among the bourgeoisie. There was a palpable fear that the privileges and power that U.S.-style capitalism was built on would be swept out from underneath it. The pressure on the color line from folks fighting to free themselves from exploitation would rupture the whole system, unless a “safety valve” was created to allow some Black and Brown folks to permeate the color line, to hide its true nature. This “safety valve” is multiculturalism. It allows some people of color to rise to token positions of power despite the color line for the purpose of reinforcing it.

If the “safety valve” that legal de-segregation provided was to continue to alleviate the pressure threatening to burst the color line at the seams, all of your average working-and-middle class white folks needed to be on board. Thus, multiculturalism became an integral part of the primary school class room; diversity trainings became mandatory in the workplace; people of color began appearing in white folks’ favorite corporate and government propaganda.

Now, every white person in America has a Black or Brown friend, so how can they be racist?

White supremacy is still at the core of public, political life in the U.S. – but on the outside it’s not as lily white as it used to be. Defenders of the color line include Black elites like Thomas Sowell, Michael Steele and Clarence Thomas; Black and Brown cops; and whether he wants to or not, Barak Obama. What Tom Tancredo said in the plainest English possible was that the institutions that legally uphold white supremacy should close the “safety valve” because there is a critical mass of enfranchised people of color voting in the U.S. and it is their fault we have a “socialist ideologue” for a president. By and large, tea baggers agree. However, they also know that the only way that tea-bagging can maintain enough legitimacy to not be destroyed is to keep the “safety valve” open. This is the crucial contradiction that will tear the tea baggers apart.

If the tea baggers seek political legitimacy as a political party, as it appears that they will, they will be forced to abandon or disavow their more radical stances. They will probably succeed in pushing the Republican party further right, but a new white-supremacist right-wing social revolution will be avoided and the populism that drives any successes the tea baggers do have will fade quickly. This absolutely requires the façade of colorblindness. If the tea baggers follow Tancredo’s lead and insist on a return to legal segregation, on tearing the veil away and revealing their true intentions, they will never be able to achieve political legitimacy. The hegemony of multiculturalism will never allow it. Tea baggers are pulled in both directions and factionalism is running rampant among them. Some will try to create a third party. Some will isolate themselves, armed and waiting for the coming Obama-induced apocalypse. Most will drift back into political apathy.

They have unchecked rhetoric and no strategy to achieve their goals. If they did, they would have either prevented Tancredo’s blatant appeal to white supremacy or they would have been prepared to defend it tooth and nail in the media.
Clearly they did neither.