Alan Grayson is Wrong About the Tea Parties…Sort of

Burning KKK cross Tea Party

The dust up created by Florida Congressman Alan Grayson’s recent fundraising appeal featuring a burning cross as the “T” in “Tea Party” is making the talking heads at Fox absolutely gleeful. After all, it’s providing them with the perfect foil against which to present themselves as champions of racial sensitivity.

Megyn Kelly of Fox’s Kelly File had this to say in an interview with former Congressman, Alan West (because some of their best friends are Black),

You know, there are certain things you don’t touch in American politics, you don’t mess around with. And you know, this referring, equating somebody to a member of the KKK, that could be one of them. The other thing is, you know, Alan Grayson, he referred to the absence of health care for everybody in the country as the holocaust. I mean, he is always getting out on that limb, and where is the accountability for it?

And Kelly is one of the more reasonable voices responding to Grayson from the right.

But Grayson has remained unapologetic, responding to critics with the following:

Tea Party members have circulated countless altered pictures depicting President Obama and the First Lady as monkeys…Tea Party members also called my fellow Member of Congress, civil rights hero John Lewis, a ‘n***ger,’ and Rep. Barney Frank a ‘faggot.’ One could go on and on, because there is overwhelming evidence that the Tea Party is the home of bigotry and discrimination in America today, just as the KKK was for an earlier generation. If the hood fits, wear it.

I’m not sure I agree with Grayson’s histrionics, but he has a point. The KKK followed a play book that the Tea Party seems to be drawing from. The key plays are 1) scare your opposition into silence while, 2) creating political cover for mainstream racist political leaders to go into faux combat with racial violence by rolling back racial progress. If you just drop the violence and the law breaking, the Tea Party strategy is pretty similar to that of the KKK.

Tea Parties exploit racial resentment, incite fear (remember those Obamacare death panels?), and paint their opposition as commies and reverse racists, all in order to chill their opposition and frighten their base into action to roll back progress. And in order to achieve all of that, mainstream forces have to cooperate, at least to a degree, as did House Republicans under the leadership of Speaker Boehner by refusing to allow a House vote on a “clean” continuing resolution to fund the government. And, moreover, the Tea Party caucus took the biggest P.R. hit over the shutdown, with everyone from moderates to liberals calling them extremists. In effect, the Tea Party is providing cover for more moderate forces, willingly or not, to concede to sequester-level budget cuts, meaning that the Tea Party is winning even while losing because the political football just keeps moving in the direction of their goal post.

But, while the political dynamics are similar, it’s because American politics follow a certain pattern. We’ve always been in a fight with the right. Those fights generally breakdown along the lines of the current fight with the Tea Party. Making a direct comparison between the Tea Party and the KKK using the image of a burning cross is a manipulative stretch. Our “side” ought not endorse it if for no other reason than that racial terrorism isn’t just a relic of the past. The dramatic uptick in the number of potentially violent, radical right wing Patriot groups fueled by Obama-hatred, fear of demographic change, and the deluge of right wing talk about the takeover of our government by hostile forces (all thanks in part to the Tea Party) serves as a brutal reminder of that fact.

But, what’s far less of a stretch is to compare the Tea Party to the White Citizens’ Councils, the movement formed in response to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision before it eventually spread throughout the South in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Under various names, Citizens’ Council offshoots used political and economic pressure to maintain segregation and Southern white supremacy. They ran candidates for office, registered voters, published newsletters, and conducted educational campaigns. They were also guilty of some underground shenanigans, but their most powerful influence was via above ground and legal activism.

Here’s a quote from a pamphlet published by the Association of Citizens’ Councils entitled “Why Does Your Community Need a Citizens’ Council?”:

Maybe your community has no racial problems!…You can depend on one thing: The NAACP (National Association for the Agitation of Colored People), aided by alien influences, bloc vote seeking politicians and left-wing do-gooders, will see that you have a problem in the near future.

Sound familiar? The Tea Party of today uses this same kind of rhetoric, albeit mostly within the codes of racial civility of this moment. They suggest that our race problems today mostly stem from groups advocating for racial justice under foreign influence (remember Allen West’s 80 Communist Party members in Congress, or fellow Tea Partier Michele Bachmann’s claim that our government is infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood?). And those sinister foreign forces are organizing hapless minorities, who couldn’t figure out how to act for ourselves if our lives depended on it, to vote as a bloc in order to keep our benefits, dependency upon which they’ve determined is among the main “racial problems” of the new century.

The first attempt at Reconstruction in America was rolled back by the KKK. The second reconstruction was the civil rights movement. The White Citizens’ Councils played a more influential role than the KKK in building opposition to that movement, and the gains of that movement were rolled back by the religious right with the help of a whole host of economically motivated conservative intellectuals and political leaders like Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Phyllis Schlafly (remember the Eagle Forum?). The third reconstruction is happening now, and it’s being driven by racial demographic change.

The third reconstruction, maybe more accurately a racial reformation, is mostly a cultural shift. It threatens to push white identity interests out of the center of American culture where it has been since the beginning, battered and bruised on occasion but nonetheless undefeated, making it mean “America” to a whole lot of people, including most of the Tea Party base, who want their country back.

The right can roll back laws, but they don’t yet have a solution to demographic change, especially given the fact that it’s not just happening in the U.S. – it’s a global phenomenon. And that change coupled with economic globalization means that borders aren’t going to stem the tide of change, no matter how well we enforce them.

America is changing. The Tea Party is a key player in resisting those changes. In that way, they are a bit KKK-like. But that doesn’t make them the same as the KKK. The KKK of today is out there in the form of a fast growing far right Patriot movement that deserves more of our attention. Raising money by comparing the Tea Party to the KKK makes the vigilantes of today less, not more visible.

Anyway, the one thing that history, including the history of the KKK, teaches us is that one doesn’t need to burn crosses or don white sheets to do a lot of damage in America. After all, it’s the guys in suits, not the ones in white sheets, that have always been ultimately in charge.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.