In a talk about the economy earlier this week, Representative Andre Carson (a member of the Congressional Black Caucus) suggested that the Tea Party are the same people who in another time would have loved to see black people "hanging on a tree."
Such language is by its very nature controversial. It is also overwrought because an allusion to lynching and the "strange fruit" of this country's recent memory conceals more than it reveals. In much the same way that black conservatives and their white handlers deploy the horrid language of "the plantation" and "run away slaves" to describe African Americans who make a choice to support the Democratic Party, an appeal to lynching as a means to describe the motives of one's political foes has to be handled with great care and precision.
For those reasons, Carson's suggestion was problematic. But perhaps not in the ways that many would assume.
Let's begin with a simple question. What do we know about the Tea Party? Who are its members? What do Tea Party members believe? What is their rhetoric? What are their dreams and goals for the country?
From recent public opinion research, we know that the Tea Party's membership is made up of older, almost exclusively white folks, and that they want to "return" the country to "Christian values" and "the Constitution." We also know that their animus and upset did not take full form until the election of Barack Obama, America's first Black President. Moreover, public opinion data has revealed that Tea Party members are more likely to believe that blacks are not hard working, are lazy, and complain too much about racism. Tea Party members, as a function of their Conservative political orientation, are awash in racially resentful attitudes.
The Tea Party uses the language of secession and the neo-Confederacy. They also advocate violent solutions to removing an "illegitimate" and "Socialist" President: these are the Tea Party's dreams of civic virtue and justice.
In all, the Tea Party is in many ways a group of white folks who feel "oppressed" because of their race and believe that they are victims of prejudice in the Age of Obama.
The signs at their rallies which depict the President as a monkey or witch doctor, the statements of their leaders, as well as the private emails and other documents which have come to light, are all plain in the face types of evidence for the role of bigotry and prejudice as driving factors in the Tea Party movement.
A second question. What do we know about the lynchings of black Americans?
Thousands of black Americans were lynched between the 1880s and the 1930s. In fact, the last lynching occurred in 1981. Lynchings took place all over the country and not just in the South. They were a form of racial terrorism by Whites against blacks that was intended to maintain their dominant position across the colorline. No one--children, women (some who were pregnant) and men--was spared the threat of death by rope, bonfire, gun, pipe, truncheon or other foul weapon.
Lynchings were a type of ritualized violence. This is a critical fact that cannot be overlooked. Lynchings were festive civic events, where whites would buy souvenirs (often human body parts from the victims), take photos, and circulate said images on postcards all over the country. In total, racial violence was a way of creating White community in a White supremacist society. Take for example the oft cited lynching of Sam Hose:
The train carrying Hose to Newnan was packed with people who were eager to witness the man's execution. As soon as Hose was off of the train, a huge mob crowded around him and marched him to the jail, cheering and shouting along the way.
Plans were made to take Hose back to Palmetto for his execution; however, several prominent members of the community spoke out, pleading with the mob to allow justice to take its course. Governor Candler ordered even ordered out the troops. Upon hearing this, the mob decided that the execution needed to take place immediately and within minutes, Sam Hose was hanging from a tree.
Hose's execution was extremely brutal. Hose initially refused to confess, but after his ears were cut from his head, he claimed responsibility for the crimes. The Atlanta Constitution reported that 2000 witnesses watched as he was burned alive and his body cut and mutilated.
Peculiarly, the man responsible for dousing Hose's body and clothes in kerosene was a stranger from the North, who was reported as saying that, though he did not know how people from his part of the country would respond to this, he felt the need to avenge the terrible crimes that had been committed. “For sickening sights, harrowing details and bloodcurdling incidents, the burning of Holt is unsurpassed by any occurrence of a like kind ever heard of in the history of the state'. Even Hose's bones were taken from the scene as souvenirs.To the eyes of 21st century "post-racial" Americans, this description of barbaric violence seems like something out of a dark, anachronistic past. The participants were "bad" people, outliers, and most whites were "good" people who would never do such a thing. The reality suggests otherwise.
In a Jim and Jane Crow America, with its sundown towns, and rites and rituals of both formal and informal white supremacy and racism, lynchings were a relatively common event. In a post-Civil Rights moment where white savior movies such as The Help flatten history by depicting an America where most whites were decent, and only a few bad people were racist villains, it is hard for many in the public to accept a painful truth: the thousands of white people who attended Sam Hose's lynching thought that they were doing patriotism's work; they represented the silent majority.
In the context of an unapologetically racist America, where whiteness was the very definition of "American" and "citizen," they indeed were.
In the White imagination of Jim and Jane Crow, the lynching of black people was an act of civic virtue. Its rhetoric and ritual was centered around white men protecting white communities (and in particular white women) from the "violence" of blacks. Ultimately, lynching was a physical representation of an "us vs. them" ethos and the necessity of the colorline.
The counterfactual of the Tea Party equals the white supremacist violence of lynching and the hanging tree is a difficult one because we cannot transport individuals through time. But, there is an eerie resonance and echo of continuity between an America where Sam Hose and others were carved up as human souvenirs for the the delight of a debased White Soul and the often mouth frothing rage and hostility by the Right and the Tea Party towards Barack Obama, the country's first black president.
If Carson were more nuanced and precise he would have instead suggested that the Tea Party and the lynching crowd come from the same political wellsprings and share the same political imagination. Of course, white supremacy has changed and evolved over time. Consequently, the expression of such white rage will most certainly be altered.
The Tea Party's language of "we want our America," the naked pandering to white resentment and fear, their abuse of patriotic rhetoric and symbols, overt racial appeals, and how symbolic racism and anti-black sentiment drive their ideology are part of a long lineage reaching back to the John Birch Society, the White Citizens' Councils, and Jim Crow.
And yes, this does include the heinous and evil legacy of lynching where thousands of black folks were burned alive, disfigured, dismembered, and hung from trees.
The Tea Party and its white populist foot soldiers would likely not have held the rope at the lynching party. But, like the many thousands who attended Sam Hose's murder, the Tea Party's members would have dressed in their finest Sunday clothing and brought the kids along on a picnic. The more blood thirsty would have howled and cheered as the victim was torn asunder and their genitals mutilated. The shy and cowardly would have stood on the edge of the crowd catching a peek of the ritual, satisfied that "their" country was safe and that the blacks were being taught to know their place.
History is not fair. It is often ugly. It can be uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the racist origins of White Conservative populism are an uncomfortable truth that must be exposed if we are to truly understand the dynamics of race in the Age of Obama.