I didn't realize it at the time I was growing up in Orange County, Calif., in the 1950s that a large percentage of family friends were members of the Tea Party movement before the name became a part of our national discussion some six decades later.
They were white, well-educated middle and upper class folks who recognized the country was headed in a direction foreign to them. No, it wasn't big government because they had experienced that already with the Roosevelt administration.
The group had its extreme fringes fueled by Sen. Joesph McCarthy and Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society who peddled fear that a "Red Was Under Every Bed."
By the time the Kennedy administration came, that fear transferred to a resentment that minorities were gaining special treatment from the government. Programs such as affirmative action and quotas were repugnant to their way of life. Mandatory busing of black children to formerly white schools in urban areas was social engineering they detested.
The whites were losing their grip on the highest rung of the nation's power ladder and it made those who clung to those beliefs angry.
By1964 the rallying cry for my people was echoed by Sen. Barry Goldwater in his bid for the presidency with the slogan, "In Your Heart, You Know We're Right."
It comes as little surprise to me that the mutation of the Tea Party movement today has the same DNA of decades earlier.and probably farther back to the days of the "No Nothing" party. As a social and political phenomenon, they are diced, sliced and dissected by many in polls and academic circles.
The reason? They pose a threat to the status quo.
One of the earliest academic studies suggest 25% of Tea Party members polled hold strong racial resentment which explains the widely distributed news video footage of their rallies holding signs depicting President Obama as a witch doctor who promotes "white slavery."
"The Tea Party is not just about politics and size of government. The data suggests it may also be about race," said Christopher Parker who directed the study for the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexuality.
One of the questions asked in the survey of respondents in California and six contested battleground states in the November midterm elections was blacks could improve their economic standing "without special favors" as other ethnic groups such as the Irish and Italians did. While 88% of Tea Party members agreed, their opponents disagreed by 56%.
Because of a national shifting of demographics where Hispanic and minority births are outpacing white births, the Tea Partiers "feel a loss ... like their status has been diminished," said David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
"If you listen to [their] language, it's always about 'taking our country back.' But it's really not taking the country back as is. It's taking the country back"—as in time, said Bositis...(T)hey use coded language"—questioning the patriotism of the president or complaining about "socialist" schemes to redistribute wealth.
Bositis, who is not an academic, wonders where the Tea Partiers were during the Bush administration when two wars and a drug entitlement program for seniors helped plunge the nation from a surplus into a trillion dollar deficit.
Naturally, Tea Party activists bristle at the labeling in broad, sweeping terms that the splintered coalition of groups are racist. As Dana Kilcullen, founder of Tea Party Fort Lauderdale pointed out, the reason few blacks are members is because 95% of them voted for Obama in 2008.
There is an overwhelming tendency in the media to highlight the more extreme elements of the Tea Party and overlook the honest passions the vast majority have against banks which plunged the nation into economic chaos and the government spending money they don't have.
Typically, the media focuses on arguments from people who I heard complain about essentially the same thing 60 years ago except this time it reflects current events. Here's the concluding paragraph in Newsweek's analysis of the Tea Party:
."It really makes me mad," says Tom Fitzhugh, a Tea Party activist in Tampa. "They have tried to portray us as a bunch of radical extremists." He considers Obama an abomination—possibly "the most radical-voting senator that ever was" and someone likely to "take us down the path of destruction." He believes the administration is intent on taking away his guns, trampling on states' rights, and opening the borders with Canada and Mexico. He has serious doubts that Obama was born in the U.S. and suspects that the president is a closet Muslim. (There's no evidence to support any of these accusations.) But his anger has nothing to do with race, he says. The real issue is that Obama is "taking down the Constitution and the way it's governed us for [hundreds of] years." All he wants, in other words, is to take his country back.
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