Thursday, July 15, 2010

NAACP v. the Tea Party: Has the NAACP Jumped the Shark

The NAACP has made the news in the last few days after adopting a resolution that criticized racist elements in the Tea Party movement.  Predictably, the Tea Party has responded by trotting out the dark-skinned folks who are members of the Tea Party to rebut the NAACP's claims.  The NAACP has retreated a bit on its resolution.

I have two reactions.  First, I'm always leery when a group is characterized by its worst elements.  I don't know whether there are racists in the Tea Party movement.  It would surprise me if there were not. See for example these pictures that the NAACP has posted on its website. I don't know whether Tea Party members shouted racist statements at black congresspeople and spit at them, I was not there.  One side said this happened, the other side said it did not.  Given my predispositions, I believe Congressmen John Lewis and Emmanuel Cleaver. Assume that these events happened, what follows?  The leadership of the Tea Party has consistently proclaimed that they abhor racists and racists are not welcomed into their ranks.  The NAACP has not maintained that the Tea Party's platforms and beliefs are racist.  They've mainly pointed to the behavior of individuals at rallies and isolated incidents. I think we should all be careful not to use descriptions that would characterize a movement as racist on the basis of isolated incidents and the behavior of fringe members.  This type of characterization has a silencing effect.  None of us would want to be defined by the fringe elements in our groups.

In the NAACP's defense, its latter clarification explicitly stated that it did not wish to characterize the Tea Party as racist, it simply wanted the Tea Party to address its racist elements.  I'm not sure if this defense is an improvement. It reminds me of the times (the good old days of  yore?) when black people and black leaders were asked to speak for the race.  As an aside, I've said this before and I continue to believe that we must be very careful not to racialize every debate.  We should call out racism and racist behavior where it exists, but we must be very careful not to silence debate with cries of racism.  Sometimes this is a fine line and the line is not often clearly marked.  Because there is so much work to be done, I think organizations such as the NAACP must err on the side of restraint in these circumstances.

Second, to me this dispute is a sign of the increasingly irrelevancy of the NAACP.  Of all of the issues that are critical to communities of color, of all the ways that the NAACP can use its political capital, this is where the NAACP deploys its political capital?  It is clear that national NAACP no longer plays a critical role in the lives of communities of color.  My guess is that unless there is a radical course correction, the NAACP will soon be an organization that our kids read about in the history book as opposed to one that matters to lives.  I'm not sure how the NAACP fulfills its fundamental mission by getting into a you're-a-racist-no-I'm-not debate with the tea partiers.

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