Sunday, July 18, 2010

The NAACP vs. the "tea-party" movement

You may recall that the NAACP, of which I have never been a member, recently called the "tea-party" movement racist. An unfair comparison? Perhaps.

But given history, an understandable one.

According to a commentary in today's New York Times by Matt Bai, the real issue is generational, not racial or even so much political. He notes that "tea-partiers" are most likely to be baby-boomers, while activists for the NAACP tend to be that age or even older and thus remember the fight for civil rights in the 1950s and '60s and are not willing to put up with folks they suspect threaten such gains.

And in fact, the NAACP has long been on the bad side of right-wing groups. In 1998, after writing an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in which I was a tad critical of the NAACP for taking what I considered an inappropriate stand, a black right-wing newsletter, "Issues and Views," mysteriously appeared in my mailbox at work, and it advised its readers to "take back power from ... the NAACP." Two years later the NAACP ran a voter-registration drive to counter what they saw as below-the-belt tactics by the conservatives, particularly their impeachment of Bill Clinton for ostensibly political reasons -- and its chairman consequently drawing rebukes from then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Small wonder that then-President George W. Bush, arguably the most conservative chief executive in American history, skipped its annual convention until six years into his presidency.

But I was reminded of something in my own life: While I was always aware of the struggle for justice for African-Americans -- how could I not be? -- I never allowed myself to be defined by the struggle. And that caused problems with much of the rest of the African-American community of that day, specifically the 1970s through '90s, as I was always willing to cross such lines to mix with whites. You see, at some point in time you have to move forward and seek reconciliation with those who are, or used to be, opponents. Its failure to do so is one reason the NAACP has little pull among those younger than 40.

I see some of the same issues with conservatives in general and the "tea-party" movement in particular, which is why it has a reputation of racism, deserved or no -- I'm aware of no other groups they work with that don't agree with them on everything. Let's also keep in mind that in 2008 60 percent of the white "youth" vote went for Obama, with even some evangelicals giving the Democratic Party (often considered the "great Satan") a second look.

Bai noted that Gingrich suggests that NAACP members meet with "tea-party" representatives; Bai, on the other hand, suggested that older members of both camps meet with their younger counterparts. I get that -- because the up-and-coming generation isn't inclined to scapegoat their opponents. I think both need to happen.

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