Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Minstrelsy, Rituals, the Tea Parties, and Conservatives

Regular readers here know that I'm a big fan of Conor Friedersdorf.  As a fan, I'm going to recommend to him not only the old saw about holes and digging, but more generally to take a step back and try to see what he's missing.

The occasion of all this is Friedersdorf's reactions to race and the Tea Parties, sparked by a Charles Blow column about watching a Tea Party version of ethnic diversity.  Friedersdorf's first comment has drawn responses from Jamelle and from Adam Serwer, and Friedersdorf then responded to them (By the way, I used Jamelle Bouie's first name because that's what's on his blog).  It seems to me that at this point there are two relatively small questions at issue, along with a major claim made in Friedersdorf's first post.

The smaller questions.  Blow goes to a Tea Party event billed as highlighting diversity, and arrives to find the usual mix of Tea Party enthusiasts in attendance (in other words, a typically Anglo crowd) but the twist at this event is diversity on the platform.  He reports:
The speakers included a black doctor who bashed Democrats for crying racism, a Hispanic immigrant who said that she had never received a single government entitlement and a Vietnamese immigrant who said that the Tea Party leader was God.
an abundance of diversity on the stage and a dearth of it in the crowd, with the exception of a few minorities like the young black man who carried a sign that read “Quit calling me a racist.” 
They saved the best for last, however: Alfonzo “Zo” Rachel. According to his Web site, Zo, who is black and performs skits as “Zo-bama,” allowed drugs to cost him “his graduation.” Before ripping into the president for unconstitutional behavior, he cautioned, “I don’t have the education that our president has, so if I misinterpret some things in the founding documents I kind of have an excuse.” That was the understatement of the evening.
On that evidence, Blow concludes:
Thursday night I saw a political minstrel show devised for the entertainment of those on the rim of obliviousness and for those engaged in the subterfuge of intolerance. I was not amused.  
And Jamelle, who agrees with the charge of minstrelsy, refers to:
The fact that those voices are forced to engage in elaborate tribal rituals to show the white Tea Partiers that they’re on their side.
Friedersdorf strongly disagrees with both of these characterizations.  Serwer agrees with Friedersdorf on the first, but not the second.  I'm going to side with Serwer.

OK.  Minstrelsy?  I'm not seeing it in the descriptions provided.  In my view, that's a pretty serious charge against both the activists and the organization, and I think that Blow needs to give us more if he wants us to buy it.  I'd say that Blow's last paragraph is a reach.

On the other hand, while I'm not sure I'd use the phrase "elaborate tribal rituals"...ok, fine, I certainly wouldn't have used that phrase...I don't see how Friedersdorf can miss that there's something untoward, to say the least, about the whole exercise: a black man giving testimony that cries of racism are phony, and a Latina claiming to have never received anything from the government.  They're not up there (assuming Blow's reporting is accurate) to talk about the tenth amendment, or guns, or taxes; they're up there to give testimony that the prejudices of the crowd are really enlightened views.  Racism (as Matt Yglesias correctly reminds us over and over) isn't, for some conservatives, the problem; it's accusations of racism against innocent Americans that's the problem.  That's the first speaker, and that's the guy in the crowd.  The second speaker absolves the crowd of their prejudices: it's okay to hate the lazy people soaking up government benefits, because, see, it isn't about race -- we have ourselves one of them who doesn't take government benefits, and we just love her.  As Serwer points out, these sorts of, well, rituals are common on the right:
Think about Republican Congressional Candidate Corey Poitier calling Obama "buckwheat," or Michael Steele assuring Republicans that Obama only won because he's black, or Marco Rubio insisting the president is an idiot savant who just knows how to read from a teleprompter (his emphasis).
So when Friedersdorf replies:
But did he actually see the minorities at that rally engage in “elaborate tribal rituals”? I’d appreciate it if Mr. Serwer could specify what these elaborate tribal rituals were, because on reading the column, it seems to me that these people just stood on a stage, held a microphone, and complained about liberals. 
...I'm not sure if he's thrown by the (inelegant) words "tribal" and "elaborate," but in fact Serwer did explain exactly what Jamelle meant.  It's not that they made generic complaints about liberals; it's that they said things that were specifically geared towards deflecting accusations of racism away from conservatives and towards liberals.

So much for the smaller points, although I think that they matter, because they reveal a blind spot.  On, then, to Friedersdorft's main complaint in the first post, which is:
In any context except a Tea Party, the vast majority of liberal writers would praise the act of highlighting the voices of “people of color” even if they aren’t particularly representative of a crowd or corporation or university class. Let it happen at a rally of conservatives, however, and this winds up on the nation’s premier op-ed page...

It’s this kind of piece that causes people on the right to think that on matters of race, they’re damned if they do, and they’re damned if they don’t — if they don’t make efforts to include non-whites they’re unenlightened propagators of privilege, and if they do make those efforts they’re the cynical managers of a minstrel show, but either way, race is used as a cudgel to discredit them in a way that would never be applied to a political movement on the left. 
First of all, as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, this is simply not true.  Liberals attack other liberals all the time for tokenism, or for being insufficiently inclusive, or for other perceived and/or real violations of inclusiveness, respect, and other values of diversity.  Really; there's a whole history of this, from black/Jewish tensions during the civil rights era all the way up to Bill Clinton on the subject of Barack Obama and South Carolina.  Second of all, yes, liberals (of all ethnicities) would be quite upset if, say, the next Democratic National Convention had the usual diversity parade up on the podium but the delegates and the candidates were virtually all Anglo -- and getting the appropriate mix of speakers would certainly not be the first priority.  And, third and most importantly, yes, as each of Friedersdorf's critics point out, context and history matter.  Yes, conservatives who opposed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills are going to get extra scrutiny; yes, conservatives who oppose the policy preferences of the vast majority of African Americans are going to get extra scrutiny; yes, conservatives who hang out with birthers and race-baiters are going to going to get extra scrutiny; yes, conservatives who cover for those who use ugly epithets against John Lewis, American hero (and Barney Frank, and others) are going to get extra scrutiny.   The truth is, if a nearly all-Anglo group is even accused -- even if it was totally false -- of having members do such a despicable thing, the rest of the group damn well better be on its best behavior for some time. And best behavior does not include throwing back accusations of racism at others; it means doubling down on efforts to purge their group of any hint of bigotry.

You know what I think?  We're all grown-ups here; we can speak plainly.  Republicans made a choice to appeal to people who didn't like blacks (and gays, and a variety of other "others").  They have reaped benefits from that; there are also costs.  Some people now who weren't even born when Republicans made that choice and who are attracted to conservative ideas -- and are not bigots in any way -- don't like the fact that conservatives including themselves have to suffer that extra scrutiny, because it ain't their fault, so why are they pegged with the it?  Well, tough luck.  You choose who you hang out with.  Politics isn't just about ideas; it's also about groups, and teams, whether one likes it or not: you choose who you hang out with.  Not that Conor Friedersdorf has anything to apologize for in my view and to the best of my knowledge; he's generally quick to call out conservatives who misbehave, and in my opinion has long since earned the right to be regarded as well-meaning and well-intentioned.  But not so for the leaders of the Tea Parties, and not so for many of the leaders of the Republican Party.  Friedersdorf is wrong to believe that race is unfairly being used as a "cudgel to discredit them."  It's their own acts of commission and omission, their own tolerance of ugly signs and rumors and slogans, their own fealty to Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh and the rest of it, that discredits them. 

As I said up top, many paragraphs ago, my advice to him is to take a hard look at the position he's arguing here.  I hinted at something about holes and his follow-up, Friedersdorf is, in my view, not at his best.  I suppose the thing that really set me off is his analysis of "real Americans" talk:
Look, I do think some conservatives have a problematic tendency to see minorities as others — and that liberals, for their part, tend to assume that “people of color” must be “on their side” — but the right’s “real Americans” nonsense isn’t about race. Trust me, Sarah Palin is denigrating Ivy League colleges, the richest households in Manhattan, and coastal dwelling white liberals far more than, for example, black folks in Mississippi or Hmong in Wisconsin. 
C'mon.   First of all, I haven't seen too many Tea Parties or Sarah Palin rallies among border Latino communities, or for that matter among "black folks in Mississippi or Hmong in Wisconsin."  I have, however, seen people at Tea Parties and Sarah Palin rallies waving signs that sure looked racist to me, and we've seen rank-and-file conservatives who persist in believing and spreading racially-coded lies about Barack Obama.  From this, I conclude that perhaps at least some Palin and Tea Party fans hear ethnicity when conservatives talk about "real Americans" or talk about "taking back America."  Second of all, those "coastal dwelling white liberals" in places like Hollywood, San Francisco, and New York (all places attacked by name by conservatives)...well, it ain't only about race, now, is it.  Not to mention that there are an awful lot of blacks, Latinos, and Asians in those areas, along with the Jews and the gays and others who don't quite fit into "real America."  Does Friedersdorf really believe that New York is attacked because it's rich, and not because it' think the word I'm looking for is cosmopolitan?  Really?

Friedersdorf ends with sacrcasm:
I just think its call someone oblivious because they don’t include in every blog post on race a paragraph that says, “To be sure, it is understandable for a writer to pen a wrongheaded, reductive column attacking conservatives as minstrel show managers given the fact that some other conservatives who are completely uninvolved in this particular controversy hold problematic views on the subject of race.”
Well, no.  But a blog post about Tea Parties and race that never mentions the problematic history of the Tea Party groups and race, and follow-up that treats history and context as if it's only vaguely relevant to that topic, is a stretch.

OK, that's it, but I do highly recommend each of the items cited surprise, but TNC's post is powerful.stuff, and really a must-read.


  1. Two things:

    First, I mostly stepped back from the charge of minstrelsy in a later post, since it is pretty indefensible. Although you're right, the phrase "elaborate tribal rituals" is a little clunky.

    Second, thanks for the link! It's much appreciated, especially considering that I am a big fan of your blog.

  2. This was sent to me earlier this morning. There were by my rough count 200 email addresses that have received it, including an employee of the Dallas/FW Airport (, and one of a large Dallas mortgage company. I only point that out because the tea party in question was in Dallas.

    A Black man walks into the local welfare office to pick up his check. He marched straight up to the counter and said, hi u know i just HATE drawing welfare. I'd really rather have a job. The social worker behind the counter said, your timing is excellent. We just got a job opening from a very wealthy old man who wants a chauffeur and bodyguard for his beautiful daughter. You'll have to drive around in his mercedes, and he'll supply all of your clothes. Because of the long hours, meals will be provided. You'll be expected to escort the daughter on her overseas holiday trips and you will have to satisfy all of her sexual urges. You'll be provided with a 2 bedroom apartment above the garage. The salary is 200,000 a year. The guy wide-eyed, said, you're bullshitin me! The social worker said, yeah, well... You started it.

  3. Jamelle,

    As I said, it's not a phrase I would use, but I think you were right about what was going on. And thank you, and same to you. Here's the link to Jamelle's follow-up, which I should have noticed before posting;

  4. Jon,
    The "real American" lines certainly have a racial overtone to them. Take George Allen's use of the term in the macaca incidents.
    Thus, I agree that tea partiers can't cry foul over being tarred and feathered with that brush, since the overtone of that brush is pretty obvious.
    However, I'm not sure that the non-racial component can fairly be said to be only limosine liberals. I think you've hit the nail on the head with "cosmopolitan." In that way, though, think about what the "real American" slur is about. It's not a group identity thing; it's simply not liking us libs because of what we believe in. Honestly, I'm not sure there's anything wrong with that. If I'm going to be hated in a political debate, being hated over my ideas has a heck of a lot less wrong with it than being hated for being male, white, black, female, whatever.

  5. Whatever the meaning of "real American," it is not a phrase anyone is used to hearing from blacks or Latinos or Jews, even the most right-wing ones. Like "states' rights," it carries echoes of the racist past while masquerading as a more innocent concept. Conservatives who use these phrases pretend to be ignorant of their historical associations, despite the fact that many of them are old enough to remember them.

    I believe that the majority of tea-partiers are not consciously, intentionally anti-black, but attacking an "other" is woven into the mindset of a great deal of conservatives today. You find it in the way they use the word "liberal," talking about liberals this, liberals that. Although liberals aren't a race, the manner in which right-wingers attack liberals--as if describing a distinct species of cockroach--suggests a habit of making sweeping generalizations about entire classes of people. This habit is so deeply ingrained they have no idea how bizarre it sounds to others.

    Whatever group they attack, there's always an element of paranoia, a fear of that group usurping the American way of life. This paranoia has its roots in the old-fashioned bigotries against blacks and Jews, but it is also reflected in their incessant red-baiting. Nowadays, they can still be quite explicit about their contempt for homosexuals, immigrants, and Muslims. But most of the time they frame their attacks as a reaction against certain values or lifestyles.

    So even if we take Sarah Palin at her word when she says she is only attacking "elites," it's the same pattern of thinking that shows up in less accepted forms of intolerance. Right-wingers of her ilk are so used to making these sneering, scapegoating assaults on specific groups, it's no wonder their general understanding of prejudice is crude enough that they find old-fashioned tokenism compelling.

  6. Whining about Tea Party 'racism' isn't going to help Democrats at the polls, any more than whining about Willie Horton made Dukakis president.

    Kyolopod, I suggest you re-read your comment a few times, and see if you can discern the excruciating irony.

  7. Bob Somerby has a critique of Blow's column here:

    Scroll down six paragraphs.


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