The president of the NAACP, Ben Jealous, has demanded that tea-party supporters “expel racists from the ranks.” In an interview with ABC News, he claimed that the organization had, “for more than a year” been watching “as tea-party members have called congressmen the N-word, have called congressmen the F-word. We see them carry racist signs and whenever it happens; the membership tries to shirk responsibility.”
Tea-party “members”: Is there a membership list so that individuals who are alleged to have engaged in very ugly language can be properly identified and expelled or at least denounced? Of course not. And where is the taped evidence supporting the charges?
These are questions to which the NAACP should be particularly sensitive. In the 1950s, southern whites viewed its members as “outsiders” with subversive aims that deprived them of constitutional protection. The organization was blamed for the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the general assertiveness of the “new Negro,” and southern state officials sought to force the organization to turn over its membership lists; compliance would have invited reprisals from the White Citizens’ Councils.
Half a century ago, in other words, the NAACP understood that American democracy depended on the freedom of citizens to form voluntary associations and petition their government for a redress of grievances. Need it be said? The fluid “tea party” is made up of precisely such voluntary associations, petitioning our government. The membership is more heavily white than the general population, but more racist? That is not the finding of a Washington Post/ABC poll taken in April 2010 — the best evidence we have on the question.
— Abigail Thernstrom is the author, most recently, of Voting Rights — and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections. She is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.