Racism Rift Highlights Dilemma: Who Speaks for the Tea Party?

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Trent Nelson / The Salt Lake Tribune / AP

Tea Party Express leader and conservative talk-radio host Mark Williams addresses a crowd during a stop at the Utah state capitol in Salt Lake City

The Tea Party activist Mark Williams has denigrated Muslims for worshipping a "monkey god" and dubbed President Obama an "Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug and a racist in chief." So when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) passed a resolution condemning "racist elements" within the Tea Party movement, his bilious response on July 15 wasn't terribly shocking. In a blog post he later described as "satire," Williams began, "Dear Mr. Lincoln, We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!" The screed only went downhill from there.

The surprising part about the Williams controversy has been the strife it triggered within the Tea Party movement, a tangled web of loosely affiliated groups that has mostly managed to sidestep public spats. But on July 17, as the uproar over the remarks grew, an umbrella group called the National Tea Party Federation announced it had expelled Williams' organization, the Tea Party Express, for its refusal to rebuke him. "Self-policing is the right and the responsibility of any movement or organization," federation spokesman David Webb said during an appearance on CBS News' Face the Nation.

Since its inception, the Tea Party movement has struggled to shed the perception that its members' dislike of Obama is fueled by racism. Unveiling a new report on the movement's makeup on July 19, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg noted the survey's finding that 39% of people outside the movement suspect its contempt for the President "may be motivated by racial feelings." Frustration over the charges of racism bubbled over in a related incident this week, when, in an act of retaliation against the NAACP, conservative activist Andrew Breitbart posted to his website a truncated tape of Shirley Sherrod, a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee, recounting her reticence to assist a white farmer. Breitbart declared it proof that "the NAACP awards racism," and Sherrod was condemned by the NAACP and fired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. (The full speech turned out to be an elegant parable about transcending prejudice, and both the White House and Vislack apologized on Wednesday, July 21.)

Many Tea Party leaders have disavowed the incendiary rhetoric and imagery that have surfaced at the movement's rallies, dismissing the incidents — as Webb did — as the work of the movement's "fringe." But Williams' invective, which came just days after the North Iowa Tea Party erected a billboard likening Obama to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, underscores a real organizational dilemma. The movement is bent on retaining the decentralized structure that fostered its growth, but its lack of formal leadership — and its confounding array of overlapping groups — means that when rogue members spout off, they can seem to be speaking for the movement as a whole. "Mind you, there is no tea party leadership or even a single tea party," Williams wrote on his blog in the wake of his expulsion. "There are millions of tea partiers involved in thousands of groups; every tea partier is a tea party leader."

The National Tea Party Federation, a small, self-appointed organization, was formed in April in response to another ugly charge — that a trio of African-American Congressmen, including civil rights luminary John Lewis, were spat on and showered with racial epithets while wading through a crowd of activists protesting the health care reform bill. Christina Botteri, a spokeswoman for the federation, says the group's goal was to help facilitate message discipline among the movement's scattered factions. The decision to expel the Tea Party Express, she says, was hashed out over a series of conference calls among about a half-dozen committed volunteers. This core group, which she calls an "informal steering committee," includes Webb, Richmond Tea Party president Jamie Radtke and Nationwide Tea Party Coalition founder Michael Patrick Leahy. The vote to expel the Tea Party Express was "unanimous, but it wasn't an easy decision," says Botteri. "When people behave badly at Tea Party rallies, they're booed, asked to leave, ignored, shunned. This is another example of the Tea Party movement — and we are a small part of it — behaving in a way that seeks to uphold and protect the good name and reputation of the people in [it]."

The Tea Party Express, which this spring staged a nationwide bus tour replete with appearances by Sarah Palin, Andrew Breitbart and other conservative firebrands, is among the movement's most controversial subsidiaries. Because of its ties to the GOP, one Tea Party organizer dubbed the political-action committee run by Republican strategists the "AstroTurf express" — a telling slur in a movement that claims grass-roots authenticity. Other Tea Party groups have long been leery of Williams' penchant for polarizing commentary, and on Monday, July 19, Idaho Representative Walt Minnick, the only Democrat backed by the Tea Party Express, repudiated the endorsement. The group issued a withering statement in response to the federation's decision to expel it. "Most rank-and-file Tea Party activists think we're talking about Star Trek when we try to explain who the 'Federation' is," said Joe Wierzbicki, the group's spokesman. "Circular firing squads of groups within the Tea Party movement attacking one another accomplish nothing, and on this issue the Tea Party Federation is wrong and has both enabled and empowered the NAACP's racist attacks."

The jab at the federation's low profile isn't necessarily an unfair characterization. The federation touts its link to about 60 local Tea Party groups and more than 20 affiliate organizations — including some of the conservative movement's leading advocacy groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, the Family Research Council and FreedomWorks. But these groups provide no money or material support to the all-volunteer federation. "What we've done has been mischaracterized as an attempt to kick this or that person out of the movement altogether," Botteri says. "We have absolutely zero authority to make that happen." Mark Lloyd, chairman of the Lynchburg, Va., Tea Party and another member of the federation's core of volunteers, says the group stakes no claim to its members' ideas. "We don't try to tell anybody what to do. We came together purely to discuss and get ourselves on the same page about how to deal with the media," he says. "Every Tea Party is autonomous."

Though the gesture may be largely symbolic, the bout of backbiting rankled some movement members. "In the end, we felt that we didn't have a choice," Botteri says. "We can't allow what we feel is the positive momentum of what the movement is doing to be limited by allowing ourselves to be associated with someone like Mark Williams."