Tom Joad Meets the Tea Party

A blog post from Dave Sessions over at The American Scene delves into the issue of the Tea Party and diversity…again.  This time it deals with a conversation between a caller and conservative windbag Rush Limbaugh about the use of Spanish during an NBC football game.  Sessions sums up that white fear (not racism) is a part of the Tea Party movement:

Anyone who insists the Tea Party is not animated by a distinctively white unrest should read that whole thing three times slowly. I’ve had several conversations lately with people who insist, as Glenn Beck and other Tea Party leaders have done, that the movement is not about racism or xenophobia. I believe them. I doubt than anyone outside a small fraction of the activists who have marched in Washington openly despise black people or have personal antipathy toward the Hispanic immigrants in their hometowns. (In mine, they work for virtually every local business, and Mexican flags fly uncontroversially alongside the U.S. and Texas flags at many auto dealerships.) But one cannot listen to the exchange above and miss the clear sentiment behind the expressed concern: distinctive American culture, which happens to be the way white middle-class people who speak English live, is “under assault from within.”

I think Sessions is correct that “white panic” is a major part of the Tea Party movement and he is also correct that this panic is not the same as pure racism.  I don’t think white Tea Partiers somehow hate blacks and other folks who aren’t white.

But while Sessions doesn’t say that such folk are racists, he does at the same time seem to imply that these folks are not the norm:

People who dismiss the “white fear” interpretation of the Tea Party will no doubt accuse me of presenting anecdotal evidence, or say that Rush Limbaugh is not a Tea Party leader. That’s fair enough, and focusing on this undercurrent in no way suggests it is the only thing the Tea Party is about. But the ubiquity of the type of conversations like this “Fútbol Americano” exchange among the Tea Partiers I know, the reflexive undercurrent of hostility toward anything—Spanish, mosques, bike lanes—that is not distinctively American, gives something away. They are not just under assault from a Democratic president, but a host of vaguely-defined foreign invaders, just like Richard Hofstadter described in “The Psuedo-Conservative Revolt.” It just so happens that most of the defenders are white Christians and most of the invaders are something else. And the fact that these Americans can make wild connections between 20-second Spanish advertisements during NFL games and the “degradation” of American culture shows us something about what’s going on inside their heads.

A lot of African Americans as well as conservatives and liberals well versed in diversity will no doubt say that the Tea Party is racist or like Sessions say that its driving force is racial resentment and leave it at that.  When such statements are made, we who have issues with the Tea Party movement can either look at them with fear or with contempt.  But what we don’t do is figure out what is fueling that racial resentment.  It is simple racism or is it something more complex?

There is no doubt that folks like Rush Limbaugh and Angelo Codevilla are adept in stirring the racial and ethnic pot.  But I believe there is more going on than the tired old story of conservatives being racist.

I think this racial resentment and fear is more of symptom than it is the disease itself.  A changing America, with the first African American president as its symbol, is a threat to those who feel left behind by this changing nation.  While working African Americans have been hammered over the last 30 years, so have working class whites.  Their story is less well known, but they tend to live lives of quiet desparation, seeing their way of life dissapear.

Back in July, Virginia Democratic Senator James Webb stirred things up in an op-ed where he talked about the economic concerns of working class whites.  He makes a case that race-based affrimative action programs have done harm to poor whites and need to cease.  He wrote:

In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt created a national commission to study what he termed “the long and ironic history of the despoiling of this truly American section.” At that time, most industries in the South were owned by companies outside the region. Of the South’s 1.8 million sharecroppers, 1.2 million were white (a mirror of the population, which was 71% white). The illiteracy rate was five times that of the North-Central states and more than twice that of New England and the Middle Atlantic (despite the waves of European immigrants then flowing to those regions). The total endowments of all the colleges and universities in the South were less than the endowments of Harvard and Yale alone. The average schoolchild in the South had $25 a year spent on his or her education, compared to $141 for children in New York.

Generations of such deficiencies do not disappear overnight, and they affect the momentum of a culture. In 1974, a National Opinion Research Center (NORC) study of white ethnic groups showed that white Baptists nationwide averaged only 10.7 years of education, a level almost identical to blacks’ average of 10.6 years, and well below that of most other white groups. A recent NORC Social Survey of white adults born after World War II showed that in the years 1980-2000, only 18.4% of white Baptists and 21.8% of Irish Protestants—the principal ethnic group that settled the South—had obtained college degrees, compared to a national average of 30.1%, a Jewish average of 73.3%, and an average among those of Chinese and Indian descent of 61.9%.

Policy makers ignored such disparities within America’s white cultures when, in advancing minority diversity programs, they treated whites as a fungible monolith. Also lost on these policy makers were the differences in economic and educational attainment among nonwhite cultures. Thus nonwhite groups received special consideration in a wide variety of areas including business startups, academic admissions, job promotions and lucrative government contracts.

Where should we go from here? Beyond our continuing obligation to assist those African-Americans still in need, government-directed diversity programs should end.

I don’t know if we should abandon Affirmative Action, but we should consider long and hard how are we to help poor whites get leg up in this swiftly changing environment.

Why should a black guy like me care?  Because I grew up in a working class town where poor whites as well as poor blacks came to town to work in the auto plants.  When those jobs went away, it hit both just as hard.  They scrambled for work saw their ways of life dissappear.  If you want to know why Michigan has so many white folks in the milita movement, you might want to look at the loss of auto jobs.  Back in the 1980s, a group of white men killed an Asian man they thought was Japanese.  Was it racist?  Yes, but it was also fear  of  losing a decent way of life because the Detroit and the rest the auto industry was in the crapper. 

In a recent column, Ross Douthat noted that being left behind in a changing America tends to fuel paranoia. He was talking about white Christians being underrepresented in elite colleges, but he could have been referring to the economy as well:

Inevitably, the same underrepresentation persists in the elite professional ranks these campuses feed into: in law and philanthropy, finance and academia, the media and the arts.

This breeds paranoia, among elite and non-elites alike. Among the white working class, increasingly the most reliable Republican constituency, alienation from the American meritocracy fuels the kind of racially tinged conspiracy theories that Beck and others have exploited — that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Marxist hand-picked by a shadowy liberal cabal, that a Wall Street-Washington axis wants to flood the country with third- world immigrants, and so forth.

But Douthat also concludes that because white liberals have little contact with poor whites, they also have a jaundiced view of them:

Among the highly educated and liberal, meanwhile, the lack of contact with rural, working-class America generates all sorts of wild anxieties about what’s being plotted in the heartland.

In the Bush years, liberals fretted about a looming evangelical theocracy. In the age of the Tea Parties, they see crypto-Klansmen and budding Timothy McVeighs everywhere they look.

So, how do we solve this?  Well, one way is listening to Tom Joad again.  Using the lead character from the Grapes of Wrath, David Brooks says its time for a progressive, nonideological center to arise and work to spread middle class wealth again.  He notes that affluent liberals and anti-tax conservatives have crowded out any concern for the standards of the middle class, even as jobs dissapear.  I would add that unless there is a center that listens to the white working class as well as others, we will continue to have movements fueled by white panic. 

It’s time that we give a damn about Tom Joad, instead of looking down at him.

3 thoughts on “Tom Joad Meets the Tea Party

  1. Bruce R. Gilson

    There are a heck of a lot of different (and I think unrelated) points in this post. For example, I think I’m definitely non-racist, but I hate the tendency of Hispanics to insist that we beed to learn <i<their language; historically it’s been the other way around. (See this post, which I made two and a half years ago.)

    Now another, totally unrelated, point I need to make is that the Tea Party movement is not one single thing. Two of the people often described as its leadesr are Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint. But there’s a lot of difference between what these two people stand for. Bob Ehrlich, a moderate Republican I like, got renominatedfor Governor this year with a lot of Tea Party support , though Sarah Palin endorsed his opponent. So it is very hard to discuss the Tea Party movement the way we can discuss, say, the religious Right. They aren’t monoliths.

    I’ll stick to these two points for now.

  2. Pingback: What the Tea Partiers Really Fear | FrumForum

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