“We are asking that the law-abiding members of the Tea Party repudiate those racist elements, that they recognize the historic and present racist elements that are within the Tea Party Movement.” – First Lady Michelle Obama
Where to begin …
Let’s start with some definitions. Dictionary.com offers the following definition of racism (actually it has three – all good – but this one is the most clear): “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.” I like this definition. It points to the notion of racism as a belief system, involving inherent differences between the races. Odd that it does usually fall to a “my race is better” form – this is wildly unscientific.
(Actually, on a scientific side note, it certainly squares with evolutionist thought that the races could be inherently different. I’ve even heard it argued from a Christian perspective, but the theology is a massive stretch and, as always, is blown apart by simply tracing through a few counter-argument scriptures. But I digress.)
I offer that racism, as defined here, has been quite radically obliterated from the United States. We used to have a significant white-supremacist movement, but the KKK is nowhere near as broad as it once was. The new generation of Caucasians has utterly rejected the notion. To be honest, the belief in inherent differences in the races is just as often found in African-American culture. (Think Louis Farrakhan.)
So, if racism is rare, why is it so often pulled into the discussion? Well, I suspect sinister or patronizing motives. But let’s consider alternatives first. When most people speak of racism, what they really mean is prejudice. That is, a pre-judgment of a situation without knowing all of the particulars. We might correctly characterize this as nothing more than stereotyping.
Stereotyping basically turns causality in the opposite direction. Instead of arguing that inherent inferiority causes certain less-than-desirable behaviors, it argues that less-than-desirable social structures result in a higher propensity for such behaviors. This is not racist. It actually is explicitly anti-racist, choosing to blame circumstances and context on any discrepancies in behaviors – not inherent differences.
But even this does not capture the fullness of the discussion. Most of the time, racism is charged not against actual racism or prejudice, but something else. Most of the time it is a people group typing mechanism with a “majority rule” clause. Let me explain what I mean.
Suppose 96% of Japanese Americans prefer the availability of raw meats for use in sushi at restaurants. Also suppose that the health department has disallowed any meats for consumption in public restaurants that have not been cooked thoroughly (for health reasons). Now we have a problem. 96% of Japanese Americans oppose a policy, but the policy is enacted it anyway … the politicians and bureaucrats down a the health department must be racist, right?
Now, the example is rather trite and clearly contrived, but it gets to my point. Often we see charges of racism for disagreeing with the majority of a race. This is not actual racism nor is it stereotyping. It is freedom of thought and freedom of association.
As for the Tea Party, I don’t know a whole lot about it. I can’t point to any actual racist positions. We can note that there were some racial epithets hurled at minority members of congress during the healthcare debate. Where they tea partiers? Who knows? It’s possible they were, but it is also possible they were political plants used to build up public sympathy for members (we’ve never seen that before).
As for the rest of Michelle Obama’s quote, well, it has to go both ways. I hold that it’s probably not fair for all political figures to disparage all radical views with which they disagree all of the time. It’s too tiresome and you really shouldn’t be held accountable for what other people say. But, there is certainly no harm in clarifying one’s position. It can actually afford some nice political leeway in the right situation (think Bill Clinton and Sister Souljah).
Of course, if one is going to demand that a conservative answer for every naughty thing that other conservatives have said, then one might well expect a liberal to respond in kind. So, I’d like to call on Mrs. Obama to repudiate the racist elements of the New Black Panther Party, which attempted to intimidate voters in Philadelphia using weaponry and racial epithets. Racists that her husband, the President of the United States, has refused to prosecute in court. I won’t hold my breath …