Saturday, September 19, 2009

Race and the tea-baggers

David Brooks

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I go running several times a week. My favorite route, because it’s so flat, is from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol and back. I was there last Saturday and found myself plodding through tens of thousands of anti-government “tea party” protesters.They were carrying “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, “End the Fed” placards and signs condemning big government, Barack Obama, socialist health care and various elite institutions.Then, as I got to where the Smithsonian museums start, I came across another rally, the Black Family Reunion Celebration. Several thousand people had gathered to celebrate African-American culture. I noticed that the mostly white tea party protesters were mingling in with the mostly black family reunion celebrants. The tea party people were buying lunch from the family reunion food stands. They had joined the audience of a rap concert.
I read this in the New York Times the other day, and as I often am with David Brooks I was both somewhat in agreement and dismayed by the oversimplification.

But race is an issue that everyone oversimplifies quite a bit, it seems. Some of what Brooks is saying is true: there is a populist/educated divide in America. A lot of other things than race play into it--education, obviously, but also the de-industrialization of the country, insane pay for folks whose contributions are questionable, the panoply of social changes we've seen since the 1960s, etc., etc. In fact, I come from a place where this conflict was obvious every day of the week--my family was working class, a lot of my relatives did poorly in school and worked manual labor positions. But my father was a very intelligent man and a voracious autodidact. The contrast and conflict between the values and expectations of my father and those of many of the people around us was one of the central experiences of my childhood.

There's a lot that goes into the frustration that these folks feel, but to say that race doesn't play a role is absolutely wrong.

Populism itself has a pretty ugly history when it comes to race (the modern Ku Klux Klan was part of a populist rising in the early part of the twentieth century). While, yes, the current generation of populist rabble aren't Ku Klux Klanners, and do have far more comfort with blacks than their grandparents may have had, the fact that Obama is black is without question one of the things that makes the country seem "not theirs anymore."

Every single one of their issues either a) is delusional or b) was also true under Bush. Can it be a coincidence that the real engine beneath the populist rising is immigration, and if you scratch the surface there you find that the fear is not just that immigrant will pull their wages down or displace them, but pure xenophobia.

And that xenophobia, even when it is completely in its "fear of sophisticates" (and it isn't for most of these people) mode is only a small step away from "fear of anyone not white and Middle American."

These people are not too stupid to know the difference between, say, Al Qaida and Iraq. The problem is they want theri conflicts to be ethnic issues. Ethnic conflict is easy to resolve: kill the other. And that, in short, is what is behind all the threatening posturing at these demos.

Appreciation of rap and ability to mingle with blacks notwithstanding, these folks are intense xenophobes, and where that xeno starts is a fluid line. And it certainly begins before we get to an articulate black man leading the country.