African-American conservatives explain that the only racists are those who worry about race-based prejudice.
When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People introduced a resolution calling on the Tea Party movement to "condemn extremist elements," I wondered what possible good it would do. How might it help liberals who felt frustrated, increasingly, that their attacks on "racism" in the new conservative movement were never taken seriously? The resolution didn't do much for the NAACP, but it did plenty for liberals. Three weeks later, after the Shirley Sherrod mess, and after the implosion of Mark Williams, spokesman for the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express, conservatives are still bristling at the charge of Tea Party "racism." On Wednesday morning, Williams' old organization organized a two-and-a-half-hour event at the National Press Club in order to rebut the charge the best way it knew how—with a chorus line of black conservatives attacking anyone who dared call the Tea Party racist.
"The left has wielded racism like a dirty nuclear weapon, destroying whole cities and the hopes and dreams of many Americans, not just black Americans," said Kevin Jackson, a self-published author and blogger who calls himself "a leader in the consulting industry in America" and frequently appears on talk radio. "It's time that reign of terror ended."
Jackson spoke calmly, giving the crowd some time to applaud his jokes, sporting the same tan suit/black shirt combo he wore for the cover of his book, The Big Black Lie. Looking on were more than a dozen black conservative activists from organizations that are known, if they are known at all, as the ones booked on cable news to give the Other Perspective when race and politics take over the news cycle. It was a snapshot of the reverse-racism grievance industry, a far-flung and much-interviewed network of black conservatives who profess to believe—as Stephen Colbert professes, less seriously, to believe—that racism can be ended in America if people stop obsessing over it.
"Being called a racist is the single most damaging charge for any American," said Niger Innis, the national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, a major player in the civil rights struggle that since the late 1960s has been aligned with the right. "Because of this new phenomenon, the NAACP, in a betrayal of its own legacy, and in a betrayal of black Americans, has now adopted the tactic it was formed to fight in the first place—racial terror! The same racial terror that was employed by whites in hoods is now being employed by blacks and whites in suits! The terror is employed against Americans who want to exercise their First Amendment rights."
This was not the morning's only reference to the KKK, and none of those references caused much of a stir. Black conservatives have been making this case for decades, with limited success. Liberals dismiss them as plants or dupes; they double down and say this proves just how racist and plantation-minded white and black liberals really are. AlfonZo Rachel, a black comedian and star of the conservative video site PJTV, accused Democrats of using blacks as "ballot cattle," forever to be kept poor and voting the right way. "The NAACP is basically made up of the same kind of people who'd rat out a runaway slave," said Rachel. "We're the ones who don't have chains on our brains, and they hate us for it."
"They" are the overwhelming majority of African-Americans. In the Gallup Poll, President Obama has enjoyed approval ratings among black voters as high as 96 percent. His lowest low came in the aftermath of the firing of Shirley Sherrod, the USDA administrator let go after a video of a speech she gave to the NAACP was edited to make it sound as though she'd mistreated a poor white farmer. Obama's rating dipped to 85 percent, reflecting the anger of many people who felt she was whipsawed by conservative media like Fox News and Andrew Breitbart's BigGovernment.com. Obama's bounced back since then, although Rachel didn't let Sherrod off the hook when a reporter suggested that the Sherrod tape was "doctored" by a conservative. She might have patched things up with that white farmer, but she wasn't colorblind.
"Doctored it? Ma'am, if he doctored it, he did her a favor, because if you look at the whole tape, you'll find out just how racist Shirley Sherrod is."
The Tea Party movement has produced a bumper crop of black conservative stars. Fox News pundit Angela McGlowan, one of the more successful proponents of the "Democratic plantation" argument, rode her Tea Party stardom to a congressional bid that was endorsed by Sarah Palin (although that wasn't enough to win her the primary). Retired Lt. Col. Allen West, who ran an unsuccessful congressional campaign in 2008, has become a Tea Party superstar this time around, translating his fame into one of the best-funded challenges of the cycle. The National Press Club event was emceed by Lloyd Marcus, a Florida singer (press materials informed reporters that he wrote a near-miss candidate for official state song) who has become one of the Tea Party Express' stars, with all of the cable TV time that's worth.
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.