Good for the NAACP. We need an honest conversation about the role of race and racism in the tea party. Thanks to a resolution passed this week at the NAACP's national convention, we'll get it.
The minute you say there are racist elements in the tea party, the pushback goes from cries of persecution to charges that those who are criticizing divisiveness are themselves the dividers.
So let's dispense with the obvious: Most of the opposition to President Barack Obama comes from people who are against his policies, not his race. The tea party is motivated primarily by right-wing ideology, not by racism.
Nothing the NAACP is saying contradicts this. Its contention is that there are racist strains in the tea party and that the movement's leaders and the politicians who profit from its activism should denounce them unequivocally.
Here's what Ben Jealous, the NAACP's president and CEO, asked of the tea party: "Expel the bigots and racists in your ranks or take the responsibility for them and their actions. We will no longer allow you to hide like cowards."
The NAACP is doing exactly what conservatives did for decades when they demanded that liberals and progressives separate themselves from left-wing extremists who burned flags. The racists are the tea party's flag-burners. It's fair to ask the democratic right to condemn extremism. (Note the small "d.")
I spoke with Jealous, and he went out of his way to emphasize that his group is not making a blanket charge of racism. "We have never called the tea party racist," he said. "We know there are black tea party members and we want black people to feel comfortable taking leadership positions in all parties in this country."
Speaking of tea party leaders, he added: "We've seen the signs, we've heard the slurs, and all we're asking is for you to act responsibly and say there's no space for bigots in the tea party."
It's legitimate to insist that those who believe in democracy and freedom take forceful steps to disassociate themselves from people in their movement who peddle racism, intolerance and fear. That's what the NAACP is asking.
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