It is a good thing that the leaders within the Tea Party aren’t in charge of running the nation’s observances of Black History Month. Recently, one of the movement’s most high profile officials, Michele Bachmann, the ultra conservative congresswoman from Minnesota, offered a total, well, whitewash, of the story of slavery in America.
The congresswoman, who has emerged as the Tea Party’s poster child for its ideal of America’s leaders of the future, shockingly, told a conservative political group in Iowa that the United States was founded by leaders with a tolerance for ethnic diversity and that the country’s founders were responsible for abolishing slavery.
Of the framers of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, she said, “The very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States…men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.”
Bachman said that early Europeans settlers accepted all immigrants and that the color of their skin, language or economic status had no role in keeping them from finding fulfillment in the United States. “Once you got here, we were all the same,” she said. “Isn’t that remarkable? It is absolutely remarkable.”
Remarkable is exactly what it is. The congresswoman has conveniently forgotten – or deliberately distorted – American history, omitting the fact that African-American men and women were deemed to be counted as three-fifths of other Americans by the framers of the Constitution. She also did not mention the fact that most of the Founding Fathers were longtime slave owners. And she neglected to mention that none of the nation’s Founding Fathers were alive by the time slavery was officially abolished after the Civil War had begun (she also failed to point out that John Quincy Adams was not A Founding Father, but the son of one).
So why should we care about Bachman’s revisionist recitation of American history? In the early days of the Obama administration, the Tea Party was widely perceived as merely a fringe, nuisance movement. They were seen as a relatively harmless annoyance. But there was always an undertone–and a thinly veiled one at that–of racism within the Tea Party’s rank-and-file membership, characterized by breathtakingly racist placards at their rallies.
Of course, local Tea Party leaders insist that they are unfairly characterized as condoning racism in their ranks and contend that they work diligently to get rid of any members who wear their prejudices on their sleeves.
But Benjamin T. Jealous, the president of the NAACP, said it best when he stated, “We have watched as they have sent protesters to the halls of Congress who have called civil rights heroes like John Lewis the N-word and Barney Frank the F-word. We have watched as groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, a lineal descendant of the White Citizens’ Council… celebrate the involvement of their members in the Tea Party.”
Furthermore, Jealous said, “We don’t oppose the continued existence of the Tea Party…We simply object to their continued tolerance of racists…and white supremacists within their organization.”
In the 2010 midterm elections, a quarter of the 435 members of the House of Representatives won with the endorsement of the Tea Party. They now have such a prominent role that they had their own response to the president’s State of the Union speech–apart even from their Republican colleagues. And that Tea Party response was delivered by none other than Congresswoman Bachman, of botched American history fame.
More than anything, Bachman’s historical musings prove again the Tea Party is a dangerous movement of people led by officials who want not just to turn back the clock, but to redefine how time itself is calculated. Any official in Congress who would so shamelessly redefine the history of Black people in this country is surely capable of redefining, re-scripting or reshaping any policies that affect African-American life in this country. Is this a movement that could be trusted to resolve the crisis of chronic Black unemployment in this country? Is this a group that could be truly sensitive to the health care needs of urban America?
And so Democrats, Independents and even moderate Republicans need to be on notice. They need to understand that, no matter how the Tea Party frames itself and its rhetoric, this is not a group that should be considered a friend to the aspirations and development of people of color in this country. And they need to understand that they must out-organize and out-maneuver this movement as the country moves toward the 2012 elections. If we fail to counter this movement, far more will be lost than an accurate recounting of history.
[Editor’s Note: Jonathan P. Hicks is joining the Amsterdam News as one of our regular columnists. Mr. Hicks is an award-winning writer and journalist with more than 30 years of experience covering politics, business, industry and the role of people of color in the world of business. For nearly 25 years, he worked for the New York Times, where he covered the politics of New York State and New York City. During that time, he developed a reputation as one of the foremost authorities on the inner workings of the political culture in New York City and New York State. He has been a frequent guest on local radio and television news programs, where he has offered political analysis and commentary. He was also the author of the “Politics 5-B” column for the Times’ website.
After leaving Times, Mr. Hicks worked as a senior fellow at the DuBois Bunche Center for Public Policy at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. He currently is the host of “Urban Focus,” a weekly radio program that brings together politicians, policy makers, industry practitioners, scholars and expert analysts. “Urban Focus” explores a range of issues that affect communities of color from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to Cape Town, South Africa.]