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.
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 email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Alan Keyes by David Weigel.