The Racist Slur on Tea Parties, and an Ethicist’s Lament

I thought long and hard about whether to write this post, and I resent the fact that I had to think about it at all. But it involves piggy-backing on a theme that has been finding voice on conservative talk radio, and concerns an unfair and dishonest theme being pushed by liberal talk television and certain media pundits. That means that whatever I write will immediately be taken, by those who view the world in narrow ideological terms, as a declaration of alliance when it has nothing to do with politics at all. It has to do with unethical journalism, sloppy reasoning, and dirty politics. I resent the fact that Right Wing radio is so frequently uncivil and unfair  that it sullies every legitimate observation and position that it takes. I resent the fact that so much of the public decides what they believe, not by the quality of the ideas in question, but by the identity of who advocates them. Communication is hard enough without bias serving as a perpetual hurdle to comprehension.

Oh, well….

The effort by certain commentators, TV hosts (notably MSNBC’s troika of Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann), liberal columnists and Democratic Party flacks to stereotype the Tea Party movement as a thinly-veiled racist protest is despicable, unsupportable, dishonest and unfair.  It is also insulting to Americans generally. And yes, I resent that too.

The simplest basis for this observation is the simple-minded justification for the accusation: the Tea Partiers are overwhelmingly white. “Monochromatic!” sneers Matthews. “Where are the black faces?” insists Olbermann. To begin with, this is demonstrably untrue. I was caught in a Tea Party rally in Washington, D.C., and I saw several black participants….more than I expected, in fact. But, as I am a fair and logical individual, the reasons for my expectations were these: 1) Blacks represent only 13% of the population, 2) Over 95% of these supported, and still support, Barack Obama, and 3) Most of the Tea Party protesters are Republicans, and more than 8 out of 10 blacks are Democrats. Why, in other words, would anyone expect a significant number of black Tea Partiers? They were clearly not, however, unwelcome, and the mere absence of a significant black contingent does not indicate a racist group. Fenway Park crowds, for example, are almost completely white in composition—more so that the Tea Party group I saw in Washington. I don’t think rooting for the Red Sox is racially motivated.

After all, there weren’t many Klan members there, either.

Olbermann bases his entire argument that the Tea Party movement is racist on this self-evident logical fallacy and failed syllogism. All anti-black racist movements are made up of white members, but the fact that a group has mostly black members does not mean it is racist. Go back to whatever college that is burying its head because it graduated you, Keith. You’re embarrassing yourself.

The more sinister part of the racism charge, however, is the continuing effort to paint any opposition to America’s first African-American president as based on prejudice against his race, as if there are no other legitimate and honorable reasons to question the competence, philosophy, allies, appointments, agenda, goals, fiscal policies and diplomatic efforts of his Administration. (To be fair, if his words are to be taken seriously, Olbermann actually believes this.) So, for example, the fact that I find that a Presidential advisor’s casual comment that he regards a 20% recidivism rate among released terrorists pretty darn good is per se evidence that a responsible president  should replace him with the first hot dog vender available makes me a racist by this standard.

It would be laughable, if it wasn’t so anti-democratic, cynical, and transparently dumb.

Are there racists among the Tea Party protesters? Of course. I found the tone of Tom Tancredo’s remarks at the Yea Party convention offensive; if he’s not a racist, he’ll do until one shows up. I’ll even concede that a legitimate protest of the policies of a black president will attract more than its share of racists, for the same reason that legitimate peace demonstrations attract assorted anti-American and pro-totalitarian groups. That doesn’t make the Tea Party movement itself racist.

If Olbermann, Matthews et al. have any honesty and integrity, then they can set out to prove their point the ethical way: with investigation, not facile stereotypes, with facts, not innuendo, with data, not slander, with substantive argument, not insults. If they do that, then I’ll be among the first to congratulate them for good and fair journalism.

From what I have seen so far, I don’t think they are capable of it.

16 thoughts on “The Racist Slur on Tea Parties, and an Ethicist’s Lament

  1. And yet…
    The tea partyers ought to ask themselves why so few blacks are in the movement. I agree there isn’t any reason to think they’re excluded, but why is it so few join up? Why does the cause itself have no appeal? In a multi-colored multi-cultured America we need a big tent. If we reform our system in a way that 97% (say) of blacks feel unwelcome, that says that there’s something very wrong with the redesign.
    Boo to the MSNBC three, but no credit to the Tea Party. Not yet.

    • Honestly, Bob, I think its an easy answer, the simple math of how few GOPish, conservative, anti-government blacks there are to join. The better question is why blacks support Obama at such a high level—more than 90%. That can’t be explained by anything BUT race…not with black unemployment at unconscionable levels. If blacks are acting against self-interest by not participating, the TP movement isn’t who should be asking questions.
      But the protest is essentially anti-government spending, and blacks are historically the most trusting demographic group in government…though it really has reached a point of diminishing returns If the TP-ers want to know why blacks don’t join, they should ask me, not Keith.

  2. Wow! Where do I start…

    First, this is a surprising post on an ethics blog. I found nothing in your writing that even addressed the subject. That said, I am adding to the discourse because you obviously need a Minority Report. Right now, all we have heard from are white talking heads and bloggers.

    Let’s deal with the following supposition/query first— “The better question is why blacks support Obama at such a high level—more than 90%. That can’t be explained by anything BUT race…not with black unemployment at unconscionable levels. If blacks are acting against self-interest by not participating, the TP movement isn’t who should be asking questions.” Actually, it would be more accurate to say ethnicity is a factor in the high support level the POTUS enjoys among African Americans. It mirrors the support an Irish candidate would enjoy in, say, Boston. Let’s also not forget who the candidates were in 2008. I am African American and I voted for the smartest candidate and I did so with racial pride. No apologies. In other words, we had a candidate who graduated at the bottom of his class running with a candidate that barely made it out of college and could not cite what newspapers she read versus a candidate that graduated top of class at Harvard law running with a lion of the Senate. Hmmmm. If you were in HR and those resumes crossed your desk, would the Harvard grad or the near washout at Naval Academy get the nod? By the way, unemployment, poor education and health disparities have impacted the African American community for a long time. I don’t know anyone in our community who expected things to turn around in 12-18 months. BTW: The Congressional Black Caucus met withe President Obama to voice concerns regarding unemployment just a few weeks ago.

    Now, for the main course—Tea Partiers make no arguments based on fact. This group runs on supposition, attribution and fear. To be honest, these are the scariest type of white folks to black folks. The crowd that believes and embraces the idea that a Black man, who is most likely and illegal alien, (the other) wants to “pull the plug on grandma” (without any proof) is cut from the same cloth as the mob that believed a Black man looked at/winked at/spoke to/raped a white woman (without any proof.) With the latter leading to unspeakable violence—castration, lynching, mob violence against an entire black community at times. It’s sad to say, but one of the things Black people learn in navigating larger society is how to distinguish which white people are prone to racism, and which will operate at a higher moral level. The Tea Party crowd is the former, sorry to say.

    In closing, I would find it interesting to hear your opinion (from an ethical standpoint) on journalists, of any stripe, who perpetuate false or misleading information. AND your take on journalists who state their opinion without making it clear that their opinion is not fact.


    • Dear Gyasi: First of all, thank you for one of the two or three most sincere and thorough posts we’ve had here since Ethics Alarms went up.

      First, to respond to to your introductory comment. Ethics Alarms explores how ethical values affect everyday life, focuses on ethical analysis as an essential aspect of understanding human conduct generally, and looks at our culture’s evolving concept of right and wrong. The post in question focused on the media’s consistent breach of journalistic ethics (though this would not apply to most of the individuals I mentioned, who are not journalists but pundits—though MSNBC uses them as reporters when it wants to pimp ratings so—you know, I take that back: Matthews at al are violating journalistic ethics.), by abandoning any attempt at objectivity, plus their routine refusal to treat American citizens with respect and fairness. Tarring an individual or a movement with the charge of racism, or implying such with innuendo, is an unethical practice. Using false representations to do so, and Olbermann’s (repeated) statement that there are no “black faces” at Tea Party rallies is demonstrably false (as well as his silly claim that there are no gays there: is he expecting Ru Paul, Richard Simmons and Dame Edna? How does he know the sexual orientation of protesters? Nobody’s gay-dar is that good. That is worse than expressing opinion as fact. The statement that there are no gays at Tea Party rallies is an assertion of fact with no evidence, in order to deceive. That’s a lie. For a journalist, it is worse than a lie.). Ethics Alarms ultimately is about what is right and wrong. The way too many journalists use unethical practices to denigrate the Tea Party movement is wrong, and I explained why. That’s ethics.

      I wrote that near unanimous approval of the President by black Americans is race-based. I didn’t say it was racist. The comparison with Irish support of Irish politicians—60 years ago!!!!—is not a fair analogy. Race and ethnicity are not synonymous, but even if they were, what are 90-95% of any group assigning their alliances substantially on the basis of race in 2010? I don’t vote for a candidate based on what race he or she is—it’s an irrelevant factor. As is ethnicity. To the extent that some people can’t get by bias—and trust and admiration based solely on group identification is bias—they are treating the other candidates unethically. I have no reason to doubt your statement that you voted for on the basis of what you saw as intelligence (although calling Joe Biden—who you must know is as dim-witted as Dan Quayle based on a career of gaffes, including using another man’s biographical speech as his own—“a lion of the Senate” after pigeon-holing the other candidates based on [unfair] measurements of intelligence made me laugh out loud. Great bait-and-switch there. I can’t blame you.), but over 90% is res ipsa loquitur race-based. 90%+ voted, for example, against experience. That’s just no going to happen without bias.

      After I finished your introduction, I was prepared to be dazzled and enlightened by “the main course.” Thus I was disappointed to read
      “Now, for the main course—Tea Partiers make no arguments based on fact. This group runs on supposition, attribution and fear.” Amused, though. I had an 8th grade history teacher who insisted on being called, pompously, “Dr. Arthur.” On the first day of class, he told said this…I will never forget it: “In this class, we do not deal with opinion. I will give you facts, and only fact. Here is your first fact: THE U.N. IS A DEBATING SOCIETY!!!!

      What do you mean, “the Tea Partiers make no arguments based on fact?” That’s just absurd. They base their main complaint on the deficit and the national debt. The fact that both are at historic levels is a fact. Economists disagree (though not that much) over how dangerous that is to the country’s future, but it is a fact. The Tea Partiers argue that the deficit precludes new entitlements and expensive programs. That is opinion, but the argument is based on fact. It is a fact that Pres. Obama favors big government solutions to problems and perceived problems. That’s a fact too. So is the fact that billions of dollars were spend to stop GM and Chrysler from going out of business when free market principles say they should have been allowed to fail. The Tea Partiers argue their opinions based on that.

      Gyasi, you are the one arguing based on supposition and fear. You say “The crowd that believes and embraces the idea that a Black man, who is most likely and illegal alien, (the other) wants to “pull the plug on grandma” (without any proof) is cut from the same cloth as the mob that believed a Black man looked at/winked at/spoke to/raped a white woman (without any proof.)” Talk about fear-mongering. This is exactly what the article was about, and it is unethical, pure and simple–casting those with whom you disagree as racist, paranoid villains because it is easier to marginalize them that way. Yeah, most Birthers—you know: morons—are tagging along with the Tea Party movement. That figures, but Tea Partiers aren’t Birthers: you are using the same illogical device that racists use. Similarly, you are too smart yourself to use the “pull the plug on grandma” line (as is Obama) when both of you know that all the “death panel” stuff was (not helpful) hyperbole to cast health care rationing in the worst light possible—but it is a real issue. Tea Partiers think the President (not “The Other”) wants single payer health care (he has said so) like Britain, where elderly patients are denied, on occasion, expensive life-extending care after a review by a panel. Palin gave the Democrats an easy out (which you took), but concern about rationing is not some wild-eyed paranoid racist delusion. (By the way, I think rationing is inevitable and necessary, but doing it ethically will be quite a challenge.)

      So that was it: you actually believe the slander about the Tea Party movement, so those who have misled you must be fair, honest and ethical. No. You are living, breathing proof of why media coverage of the Tea Partiers is unethical.

  3. @ Jack:

    If you call out lapses in journalistic ethics on the left, please do so for the right. FOX news is hardly fair and balanced. At times they promotes lies that know to be lies.

    The GM scenario is a good one. If you teach ethics, perhaps you should have your students tackle it. in class and on an exam using a prescriptive approach.

    President Obama had to earn a great deal of the support he enjoys among African Americans. Don’t forget there was a heated primary between Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton—who enjoyed a great deal of support in the Black community. I am not saying that people both black and white, didn’t vote for him because he is Black. I am only saying that there were other reasons to vote for him then and to support him now.

    There is always a smokescreen for racism.
    During the Civil Rights era it was state’s rights.
    For anti-busing foes it was neighborhood schools.
    For the tea party it is fiscal discipline. Nevermind that they have been silent for the past eight years while the Bush Administration turned a federal government surplus into a huge deficit.

    My opinion that these folks have a racist streak is fueled by credible news reports. Check this link—

    And, that’s all I have to say about that!

  4. But Gyasi…you need to say more, or you haven’t said enough. On specific points:
    I have never doubted that there are racists aplenty among the Tea Party groups, just as there were genuine Anti-American, anarchist and pro-dictatorship individuals who were active in the protests against the Iraq War. And Fox, among others, highlighted those, mos-characterizing the anti-war protests as anti-American, exactly the way other media is using the racists and morons in the Tea Party movement to discredit everyone. The technique was unfair and unethical in 2003, and is unethical now. There is a lot of angry criticism in the conservative press that the idiotic words of a handful of demonstrator were seized upon by the mainstream media to delegitimize the protesters—Nancy Pelosi used this trick when she referred to the swastikas at earlier protests, which were actually a couple of dumb placards calling her a Nazi—and from the accounts, I think the criticism is well-founded. As you know, the Black Muslims and other radical civil rights groups were used to tar the whole civil rights movement. This game, and it is a game, has been played on both ends of the political spectrum to suppress genuine protest. The ethical approach is to recognize and reject the tactic, period, whether or not you agree with the protest. Personally, the presence of the racists would be sufficient to keep me away from Tea Parties if I was otherwise inclined to join them, just as the Anti-American groups would have kept me from joining any anti-Iraq War demonstration. But not everybody agrees with my logic: I have two very dear friends who were extremely active in 2003, and when I argued that they shouldn’t get involved shoulder to shoulder with genuine enemies of the nation, they argued, “So the fact that disreputable individuals hitch-hike on a legitimate protest effort should kill legitimate protest? Then how do we make our feelings known? That’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”

    The “code” issue is somewhat similar. “States rights” has indeed been used as a code for segregation, but states rights, eg. Federalism, is no trivial or imagined issue. Neither is the deficit, or traditional American devotion to individual freedom and self-determination over government control. The fact that a legitimate issue is used by some or even many as a cover for a darker motive doesn’t make the issue any less valid. Again, that’s a facile and unfair way for opponants to win an argument.

    I can completely agree with your statement that there are good reasons to support the President now, but still ask, in the face of equally or, in my opinion, far more persuasive reasons not to support him (incoherent foreign policy, incompetent appointees, failed economic policies, cynical violation of promises and principles, general passiveness and rookie mistakes galore), how an over 90% approval rate can be explained rational analysis, rather than group identification.

    Two last points:
    1) I criticize the conservative media on a regular basis. You can check.
    2) Conservatives screamed about the Bush deficits, long before the meltdown, and opposed the bail-out under Bush. They have been very consistent. They also argue, 100% correctly, that spending wildly after you are broke is even more dangerous and irresponsible than getting you broke in the first place. Pointing to Bush spending to deflect criticism of even greater Obama spending is a desperate argument.

  5. @Jack.

    It’s ok if you are a tea partier. Really. And, I guess you can be a tea bagger and not a racist. Hope you feel better, now.

    I still don’t see why this is on an blog about ethics. I guess the conversation took a turn somewhere…

    • Arrrrgh! You disappoint me greatly. The last resort (well, sometimes the first) in an effort to discredit someone’s judgment is to cry bias. According basic respect to Americans who have legitimate concerns and objections to current policies should not be limited to members of the group being discussed. I am not a member of the Tea Party movement, nor do I share many of their opinions, or care for most of their leaders and symbols. That should not preclude me, or you, from giving them a benefit of a presumption of good will. We would want the same.

      I took the time to elaborate on this issue, based on your original comments, and you simply dismiss it with a condescending cheap shot. I don’t appreciate it.

  6. Sorry, Jack. Don’t get frustrated.

    I am not saying you are biased. I just feel your replies were becoming increasingly tangential. Based on experience, when that happens the author is generally hiding something. I am just letting you know it’s ok to have an affinity, if that’s the case.

    If the topic is CURRENT media bias, and how that is unethical, then let’s look at the current news cycle. I define that period as the past 18-24 months, or so. Next, define what you mean by unethical behavior. You could also call this developing a thesis. Finally, critically look at the offenders on the left and right at the same time. Oh, and stay focused!

    Instead of that central point, I read opinions about why African Americans support President Obama and big government versus small government arguments, or how to deal with fringe elements of a movement. We even delved into the rightness and wrongness of economic theory. In short—the discourse is all over the map.

    So, define the issue. And, we can talk.

  7. I’m not frustrated. I am certainly not “hiding” anything. And everything I have talked about is on point.

    Unethical behavior is defined, in considerable detail, elsewhere on this blog. Check the “Rules.” There is no thesis necessary. Ethics is the study of right and wrong. I study it and teach it for a living.

    Media bias is unethical when it is not disclosed, when it deceives the public, and when it attempts to affect the events it is supposed to be reporting objectively.

    It’s treatment of the Tea Party movement, complete with gay slurs, has been arrogant and disrespectful from the beginning. Why? Because mainstream media reporters are overwhelmingly young, Democrat, anti-gun, anti-religion, anti-blue collar, pro-abortion and they think anyone who disagrees with them are per se morons. The Tea Partiers are “the Other” to them, and thus they attribute all sorts of negatives to a group they neither respect nor understand.

    This is wrong. It is a breach of journalistic ethics. That’s what I wrote, that’s what I believe, and that’s what is demonstrably true. We saw it again when isolated racist chants were highlighted by the press as if they were typical of the entire rally in DC, as if it were a Klan rally. It’s so much easier to believe those who disagree with you are monsters than to be open-minded and accord them respect.

    If you really don’t see what this has to do with ethics, then you really need to bone up on what ethics is.

  8. @ Jack—
    Sorry, been busy.

    FYI: I know what ethics is.
    I also know enough about it to know I need to keep learning. I am sure of this—making the ethical choice is more complex than it appears.

    This thread would be well-served if it continued with a clearer focus. Let’s resolve to put this ethical case study on the table—

    Coverage of the Tea Party movement by MSNBC in particular, and mainstream news in general, violates the Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics. Use specific examples (documented/cited in some way.) Also, say why the coverage violates the ethics code. Compare and contrast with the Bush era is off limits. Statements made without support are not considered.

    Try this approach and see what happens…

  9. Your head is in the sand. Fox is balanced? Snopes and must be stroking out with that statement. This nation has been racially polorized since Nixon, Reagan and GW Bush who used catch words, slogans as codes for race in order to split us and get elected. See Snopes and . Please, please type white privilege and read. Look up Tim Wise and read. Due to slavery the Race card has always been on the table, face up. Just like the air we breathe. Read how the GOP won the South. Years of quite whispered and telephone campaign tell southers they betrayed you with civil rights. The nigras don’t know their place any more. And so on. The sad part is that you don’t know your head is in the sand as in if you ignore “It, It” will go away.

    • Where is this piece does it say “Fox is balanced”? The essay isn’t even about Fox. You didn’t read the article, you don’t make any arguments that relate to the article. Does it deny racism? Does it deny that there is racial polarization? The existence of a condition does not mean that it is fair or logical to twist every example of conduct into a manifestation of that condition. Your silly, insulting, logic-free comment is nothing but a perfect example of the phenomenon I wrote about. Thanks for that illustration, I suppose, but the next time you comment, you better not lead off by attacking words I didn’t write, or I’m hitting the TRASH button.

  10. OK. I am back—this is an interesting topic/thread.

    Here is the rub with the premise that the Tea Party is being reported on unfairly—at the time the water began to boil and the tea started to steep, President Obama had not been in office long enough to do very much. You can’t even consider the Recovery Act. It was voted against by Republicans, yet each one of them was smiling back home when the checks were distributed. So, something must have been good about it.

    Reasonable minds look for an underlying reason for this Tea Party hostility…

    This time, let’s try the Socratic method.

    During the late 1970s and early 1980s the furor was over desegregation of schools through forced busing.
    The argument, at least in the light of day, was for neighborhood schools, not against Black people.
    How many African Americans did you see protesting busing? How many of these same whites protested for neighborhood schools when Black children were riding buses past white schools to attend segregated Black schools? Are there similarities with the Tea Party?

    What would happen if hundreds of armed Black men showed up in Virginia to hold a rally to protest the President of the United States?

    Has there been a case of someone who holds a Certificate of Live Birth from Hawaii ever being found to have been born in another state or country?

    George Bush never vetoed a spending bill. Where, exactly, was the Tea Party while George Bush vaporized a government surplus and dug a deficit hole $1.6 TRILLION DOLLARS deep?

    What are the top three reasons African Americans would have to vote for John McCain—a man who did not support the establishment of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday? Heck, what is one good reason to vote for a man who graduated bottom of class vs. a man who graduated top of class?

    What is the Obama track record being attacked by the Tea Party? Did any of them benefit, directly or indirectly, from stimulus funds, tax breaks, unemployment extensions, COBRA subsidies, or tax credits to buy a home?

    By definition prejudice (an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge; an instance of such judgment or opinion; an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics) is one, legitimate option to ponder…

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