We've known for some time now that the Tea Party has a racist element.

 White Slavery

Signs like this don't necessarily represent the majority of Tea Party supporters, but folks don't seem to mind much either.

As though the many signs and buttons weren't sufficient, researchers have collected actual data to this effect.  "The data suggests that people who are Tea Party supporters have a higher probability" - 25 percent, to be exact-"of being racially resentful than those who are not Tea Party supporters," study director Christopher Parker told Newsweek. "The Tea Party is not just about politics and size of government. The data suggest it may also be about race."

I believe the data.  It's not polite (or politically expedient) to be openly racist these days, but racism has a way of making its presence known.  If you've been paying attention (and are willing to be honest with yourself) you've felt that vibe from Tea Party supporters.

I know I have. I've felt it and then I moved on -- not because signs of this sort (and worse) are ok but because, in some ways, they are hardly newsworthy or interesting. Some people in the United States have racist attitudes. Those people probably don't much like this President. See? Not newsworthy.

Representative Michele Bachmann (MN-6) is a different story. Bachmann presented the unofficial "Tea Party" response to the 2011 State of the Union address, but I want to focus here on a different speech Bachmann made this week in Iowa.  The relevant part is at the 9:40 mark.

To me, Bachmann's comments are much more troubling than anything Sarah Palin has said. Unlike Palin (at the moment), Bachmann is an elected official, and unlike Palin's challenging interviews (even the one with Glenn Beck proved to be a challenge for her), Bachmann got to decide what to talk about and, presumably, to prepare beforehand. This wasn't a person struggling to recall something from memory. This was a person who knew what she wanted to say and was confident about what she was saying.

About immigrants she said "It didn't matter the color of their skin. It didn't matter their language. It didn't matter their economic status. It didn't matter whether they descended from nobility or whether they have a higher class or lower class.  It made no difference. Once you got here, we were all the same. Isn't that remarkable?"

Seconds later, Bachmann described slavery as an "evil" and "scourge" and "stain on our history."

"But we also know," she continued, that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States," Bachmann added, claiming "men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country."

For the record, the experiences of immigrants of color (and Irish Catholics) was remarkably different from those of their white counterparts. 

As just one example, here's how The People's Almanac describes the experience of Chinese immigrants in California (source):

As early as 1852, the California legislature passed the Foreign Miner's License Tax, which imposed a $3-per-month fee on every Chinese miner. In the 30 years following the miner's tax, Californians passed many more laws directed against the Chinese. Among the most restrictive were the following: 1854--"colored" peoples not permitted to testify against white people; 1860--Chinese children excluded from public schools; 1862--a police tax required from any Chinese not already paying the miner's tax; 1872--Chinese barred from owning real estate or acquiring business licenses; 1880--companies or individuals in California prohibited from hiring any Chinese. Chinese exclusion acts, in effect from 1882 to 1943, put strict limitations on Chinese immigration and nationalized the anti-Chinese movement already prevalent in California. In addition to the legislative measures, many incidents of violence occurred, particularly in the 1870s and 1880s. Two of the most tragic events happened in Los Angeles in 1871 (18 Chinese killed) and in Rock Springs, Wyo., in 1885 (28 Chinese killed).

The few sentences about slavery also missed the mark. 

Most of the founding fathers (including Washington and Jefferson) owned slaves until they died and while John Quincy Adams (who incidentally was not a "founding father") didn't like slavery and worked to keep it from expanding to more states, he was not an abolitionist and thought that abolitionists presented a threat to the Union.

I'm getting into the details, because they matter. 

Anyone who has ever been hurt by another (and who among us hasn't been?) knows that before one can forgive and move on, it is necessary for the one who inflicted the pain to acknowledge what happened and take responsibility for it. Doing so in the context of our founding fathers doesn't so much dishonor their memory and accomplishments as honors the survival of the slaves and their descendants. The truth doesn't tarnish our nation's history. It gives it life and meaning.

But I don't just take issue with Bachmann's statements because they don't match my understanding of U.S. history. I take issue with them because I think they reveal not only her own underlying racial attitudes, but those of Tea Party supporters more generally.  To Bachmann, it was more important to cover up the blemishes of our white founding fathers than to acknowledge the harsh historical reality of both slaves and immigrants. As far as I can see, she and the Tea Partiers have the same racial priorities today. 

Why do I think Bachmann speaks for the Tea Party? Well, there is the matter of her doing the unofficial response to the State of the Union. But it isn't just that. Watch this clip from Chris Matthews (at 1:00 mark).

The interview that follows the Bachmann Iowa clip is with Tea Party leader Sal Russo, who has an extensive political background that dates back to working as a campaign consultant with Ronald Reagan. When asked by Matthews to respond to Bachmann's comments, all Russo is willing (able?) to offer is "I think Michele Bachmann has been one of the best members of Congress."

Apparently even the best can use another history lesson. I wish I was convinced it would help.



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About the Author

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D.

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., teaches in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He teaches, studies, and writes about race relations, conflict, and restorative justice.

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