American Tea Party Movement Fosters White Racial Resentment

At the National Tea Party Convention held in Nashville, Tennessee this weekend, leaders in this movement sought to turn the fringe group into a serious political force by fostering white racial resentment and suggesting a return to the Jim Crow days of literacy tests for voters.  Several news commentators, including Rachel Maddow at MSNBC (opens video) and Rich Benjamin at Alternet, have commented on the racial subtext of the Tea Party Movement, and there’s building evidence of this based on the recent convention.

Tom Tancredo, former Representative (R-Colorado), was the initial speaker at the convention.  Addressing the overwhelmingly white crowd, Tancredo said, “It is our nation.”    Tancredo repeatedly referred to President Obama by his middle name, Hussein, and said he was thankful Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona lost the 2008 presidential election because Obama has mobilized an uprising.  “People who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House,” he said.  The kinds of literacy tests Tancredo suggests were once used in the U.S. under Jim Crow to keep blacks from voting.  These racist laws were overturned with the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965.

The big news story out of the convention was, of course, the keynote speech by Sarah Palin. Rich Benjamin is spot on when he writes in his analysis of Palin:

“Packed beneath her beehive is a spitfire brew of optimistic, yet aggrieved, whiteness. Palin embodies a bizarre, sometimes alluring, combination of triumph and complaint that many Caucasian Tea Partiers identify with through and through.  Deciphering the racial codes on the movement’s ubiquitous placards does not require a doctorate in semiotics. One popular sign shows the president’s face and a caption: ‘Undocumented worker.’ Another combines Obama’s image with this caption: ‘The Zoo Has an African Lion and the White House Has a Lyin’ African!’   Aside from the festive, ad hominem attacks against President Obama, the Tea Party’s leaders and its rank-and-file rarely mention race in debate, instead tucking it just under the surface of ‘nonracial’ issues like health care reform, public spending, immigration, and pointedly, taxes.”

There is evidence that these sorts of subtle racial cues matter in political elections.  A study by researchers Valentino, Hutchings and White published in American Political Science Review (2002), 96:1:75-90, suggests that subtle racial cues in campaign communications may activate racial attitudes, thus altering political decision making.  In an experiment, they tested whether subtle racial cues embedded in political advertisements prime racial attitudes as predictors of candidate preference by making them more accessible in memory. Results show that a wide range of implicit race cues can prime racial attitudes.

Such research lends support to the critiques by news analysts on the Tea Party Movement’s attempts to gain political support by fostering white racial resentment.