African-American conservatives explain that the only racists are those who worry about race-based prejudice.
But the NAACP's attack rattled them. The Tea Party Express' spokesman Mark Williams, a former radio host who bragged about his ability to torque off the media, decided the best way to respond to the resolution was with a satirical essay, written from the NAACP's perspective, making the case for slavery. He was gone within days, as other Tea Party groups—with leaders who had criticized Williams' incendiary comments about Obama for months—put distance between themselves and Williams. On Wednesday, it was left to William Owens, another TPE organizer, to explain that the group acted slowly because Williams was a "friend."
"If my white brother was to use the word—now, bear with me—nigger, in a friendly and playful way towards my black brothers, he would be seen as a racist," said Owens. "But if my black brother used the same jovial banter, no one would see him that way. … The word racist has lost its meaning."
This, though, is the limitation of the professional black conservative. The issue he or she talks about the most is not so much race as it is political correctness. And when he or she is asked to talk, it's in response to something the NAACP or a civil rights spokesman has said or done. The charge that prompted this press conference had to be answered, but the activists made their task harder than it had to be by challenging the premise that there was any racism in the Tea Party. Shannon Travis, a CNN reporter who had embedded with the Tea Party Express, asked the activists to respond to the signs and slogans that liberals saw as emblems of Tea Party racism. Bob Parks, a producer at the conservative Media Research Center, replied, "You have people who actually bring signs in, stick them up, and have people take pictures of them to show they were there. Or you have people who, in the convenience of their home, Photoshop them. And you're still falling for it!"
The activists explained the racial imagery in some Tea Party signs by arguing that it wasn't racial. Robert Broadus, a congressional candidate for a safe Democratic seat in Maryland, argued that an image of Barack Obama as a witch doctor was simply a statement about health care reform. I asked Owens whether questioning Obama's citizenship—as Williams used to—was racist.
"It's not racist at all!" said Owens. "It's just an issue of proper documentation, to show you're a citizen." Broadus agreed but suggested that the Obama doubters were "clutching at straws."
That they even had to discuss this, though, rankled the activists. That journalists were asking about this proved that the media were still taking cues from the NAACP and that the job of battling the civil rights hustlers was as all-consuming as ever. On the way out, Niger Innis of CORE admitted that he preferred discussing issues—the 14th Amendment, for example—but that explaining why liberals were the real racists was too important to avoid. He repeated what he said when a listener chastised him for going on TV to talk about "hyphenated-Americans," instead of being colorblind.
"I empathize with you dropping the hyphen," said Innis, "and I'm for that, but we have to let white America see black people condemning the NAACP."
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Alan Keyes by David Weigel.