Recently I was reading a news article about the reaction of some "civil rights leaders" to some of the recent activity of the Tea Party movement and there was a statement from one of the civil rights leaders that made me realize why many in the civil rights movement have a problem with the Tea Party. In the article the civil rights leader was quoted as saying something to the effect that black people enjoy their civil rights because of the federal government. This realization may seem rather obvious (or pointless) but when I thought about it I think it went right to the heart of the problem that civil rights leaders have with the Tea Party.
One of the most repeated accusations of the Tea Party is that they are racist. This accusation is particularly annoying to the Tea Party members because in their minds race has absolutely nothing to do with why they are upset with the government. The main unifying idea behind the Tea Party is individual freedom, but the direct cause that catalyzed the growth of the Tea Party into a viable movement was a concern over the economic state of the country. So it may be argued that while the unifying force behind the Tea Party is individual freedom, the main driving force is economics. They see the fiscal irresponsibility of the government as a direct threat to their personal freedom and thus they have united to oppose what they view as excessive government spending and interference (read taxation). Because their primary concern is about economics it is a non sequitur to accuse the Tea Party of being racist. Thus when civil rights leaders accuse the Tea Party of being racist from the point of view of the Tea Party members it is as if the civil rights leaders are either just not understanding what they are saying, or worse they are fundamentally irrational and crazy. Essentially the conversation goes something like this:
Tea Party member: "I think the government is spending too much money."
Civil rights leader: "You are just being racist!"
Tea Party member: "Huh? What does race have to do with the government spending too much money?"
Civil rights leader: "You're racist!"
Now to most of the Tea Party members they are more than willing to lump all the civil rights leaders in with the "tax and spend" liberals and to consider them to be fundamentally crazy. That would certainly be an easy thing to do because at least at first glance the response of many of the civil rights leaders to the Tea Party movement is rather irrational. It makes no rational sense to accuse someone of being racist when the issue of race never came up in the first place.
While I said that it would be easy to consider the civil rights leaders as nothing more than a bunch of irrational power mongers, in my personal opinion most people will usually act in a way that is in their own opinion, rational. The key here is that the standard of what someone considers to be rational is determined by their own knowledge, experience, and society. Thus what may be an entirely rational decision for one person would seem to be entirely irrational for another person. For example, for me it is entirely rational to sit here staring at a glowing flat surface hitting small squares with my fingers, while for another person it would seem the height of irrationality, and if I tried to explain why I am doing it, they may treat me like a crazy person (as a philosophical side note, this way of thinking may seem to be a form of Relativism but that would only be true if there were no external, objective measure of rationality, but there is (it's called reality) and while the individuals may act in a manner that seems to them to be entirely rational, it may be possible that their apparent "rational" acts are actually most irrational. Think of any teenage boy who has done something stupid to impress a girl. At the time they did it, it probably seemed completely rational to them. But this is another matter for a different post). So when I come across someone who is doing or saying something that seems to be entirely irrational I try to see things from their perspective and usually I can eventually understand why they view their own actions as entirely rational.
Now for the civil rights leaders to accuse the Tea Party of being racist may seem irrational but if we return to the beginning where I mentioned a statement from a civil rights leader about how it was the federal government that gave black people their civil rights, we can begin to see the rationality of the civil rights leaders in calling the Tea Party members racist (stay with me on this one). If we think about it, in the mind of many of the civil rights leaders the individual states were the ones that violated the civil rights of black people. It was the individual states that enacted and enforced the Jim Crow laws that actively discriminated against black people. It was incidents like the riots in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 that convinced early civil rights leaders that the individual states would not do anything to guarantee the rights of black people. It was only in the 1960's when the civil rights leaders found friends in the federal government that they began to realize that if they were to have any rights at all then it would have to come from action at the federal level. What this effectively did was instill the mentality in the civil rights leaders that the only way could have, and maintain their civil rights would be through the support and protection afforded them by the federal government. They lost all faith in the ability of the states to protect them and instead placed their faith in the federal government. Thus in their minds they view any attack on the federal government as a personal attack on their civil rights, because after all it is the federal government that is the guarantor of their civil rights. For them the main role of the federal government is to maintain and preserve their "rights", whatever those may be (either the right to vote, or the right to have a house, or the right to have a job etc.). As this is the primary role of the federal government they view any attack on the federal government, or even on the powers of the federal government, as an attack on their rights.
Thus in their minds it is entirely rational to accuse someone of being racist if they insist on decreasing the power and influence of the federal government. Because it logically follows that to decrease the power and influence of the guarantor of their rights, is to decrease their rights. And as the sole function of the federal government is to guarantee their rights, therefore anyone who wishes to decrease the power of the federal government must have as their only motive to decrease their rights, for there is no other function to government. And anyone who wishes to decrease the rights of the civil rights leaders must be motivated by racist tendencies because there is no other possible reason for someone to want to limit the rights of black people. Thus we can see that in the minds of many of the civil rights leaders the demands of the Tea Party are tantamount to racism. For the civil rights leaders the Tea Party wants to limit the very thing that gives them their civil rights, and therefore wants to limit their civil rights. Because the Tea Party wants to limit their civil rights the only possible explanation is that the Tea Party is racist.
Now for the other side. The fundamental assumption of the Tea Party is that their rights and freedom come because they are living breathing rational beings, not because any government gave them to them. Thus for them the federal government is an appendage of convenience for society and not the guarantor of anything. Thus to decrease the power and influence of the federal government is simply like remodeling an old and decrepit wing of a house. It is not an attack on the foundation of rights for anyone. Thus when the Tea Party members propose some revisions to how the federal government works, they are (in their own minds) in no way, even indirectly, attacking the foundation of anyone's rights. Because for them their rights are not guaranteed by the federal government.
Thus what we have here is a fundamental disconnect in ideas. On the one hand the civil rights leaders view the federal government as the guarantor of their rights and thus must be maintained at any cost, while on the other hand, the Tea Party views the federal government as a convenience that must be paid for in taxes, but if the federal government becomes too onerous then it will attack the foundation of their rights, and this is unacceptable. The real problem here is, how can both sides be made to see the issues and concerns of the other. Both have legitimate concerns and valid points. On the one hand, black people had little or no recourse for redress of wrongs until the federal government stepped in to help. While on the other hand, the Tea Party has a point that if too much power is concentrated in one place then the rights and freedoms of individuals can very easily be violated. Thus we have this dichotomy, of remembering the pains and problems of the past and holding to that which fixed it in the past, and looking to the uncertainty and possibilities of abuse or pain in the future, and somewhere we must find a common ground, because I do not believe that either side is entirely devoid of reason. I hope that someone, somewhere can find the understanding to reconcile the two sides.