Does the Tea Party Exist Because Obama is Black?

Or is "racism" being used as an excuse to delegitimize the group's momentum?

On Election Day, Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post was apparently so upset about the predicted midterm rebuke by the electorate of our first black president, that even before one vote was cast, he hurled the ugly charge of racism at white voters and specifically the Tea Party movement. He wrote:

I ask myself what’s so different about Obama, and the answer is pretty obvious: He’s black. For whatever reason, I think this makes some people unsettled, anxious, even suspicious — witness the willingness of so many to believe absurd conspiracy theories about Obama’s birthplace, his religion and even his absent father’s supposed Svengali-like influence from the grave.

Obama has made mistakes that rightly cost him political support. But I can’t help believing that the Tea Party’s rise was partly due to circumstances beyond his control — that he’s different from other presidents, and that the difference is his race.

The problems with Mr. Robinson’s argument are many. First, the Tea Party has been color-blind in dethroning office holders. Just ask Republicans Mike Castle in Delaware and Robert Bennett in Utah who were sent packing because of their votes in Congress, not their pigmentation. And three favorite Tea Party candidates are Allen West, an African-American who won a congressional seat in Florida, Tim Scott, an African-American who got the endorsement of Sarah Palin to win Strom Thurmond’s former district in South Carolina, and Nikki Haley, an Indian-American who is the Governor-elect of South Carolina. [SIGNUP]

But most importantly, Mr. Robinson’s premise is wrong. Barack Obama is not being treated differently than any other president. In fact, he is being treated slightly better. Despite near double-digit unemployment, an unpopular war, a controversial health care bill, unpopular bailouts, a mortgage crisis, an ignored immigration problem and an economy that is still stumbling, President Obama’s personal popularity is still relatively high, higher than Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton had after their first midterms.

It is true that President Obama inherited many problems, some historical in proportion. But every president inherits problems and is rightly judged by progress. The first report card is the midterm election, and the President got a clear message of “needs more effort.”

But to say that the election results and the Tea Party are racist is to ignore the simple fact that the majority of presidents have gone through similar results under similar circumstances. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was struggling to pull the country out of a recession, watched his party lose 71 seats in his second midterm.

It is also important to point out that the President himself refutes the charge that racism fuels the Tea Party; he acknowledges that it is angst about the lackluster economy. President Obama told David Letterman, “I think it is important for people to remember that I was black before I was President.” And he won in a landslide. You’ll also remember that early last year his approval rating was 76 percent. The majority of the people who liked him then were white. Did they suddenly become racists? The charge is absurd, but unfortunately expected.

That is not to say that there are not racists in this country who resent that a black man was elected president. I am not that naïve. I agree with Mr. Robinson that some elements of racism are behind the Birthers’ claims that Barack Obama was born in a foreign land and is a Muslim, but not most of it. There are crackpots and extremists whose hate and distrust have concocted crazy conspiracies about past presidents too. John Kennedy was alleged to have a hot line to the Vatican, and there are many who still believe President Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks. The distrust is more against big brother than brothers.

I admire President Obama for debunking the accusations of racism against his opponents. I am disappointed in Eugene Robinson, whom I admire, for attempting to broad brush a large group of the population with such an ugly claim. I believe he used the charge to attempt to delegitimize the Tea Party after a victory that proved its strength and momentum.

Racism has a deep and ugly meaning in this country. The word and its meaning are cheapened when it is used as either a weapon or a shield to criticism.

LARRY MENDTE writes for The Philly Post every Monday and Thursday. See his previous columns here. To watch his video commentaries, go to