When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, many pundits and political observers were eager to expunge the nation's brutal and long-running history of stark racial oppression. They spoke of a "post-racial" society freed from the divisions of tribe, healed of the deep wounds that ached and bled along the color line for centuries.
Even those who were less sanguine about the disappearance of racism -- myself included -- believed that the election of the nation's first black president signaled a new era of greater racial harmony and understanding. Surely, a nation ready to be led by a black man was ready to let go many of its oldest and ugliest prejudices.
But that was a very naive notion. It turns out that Obama's election has, instead, provoked a new civil war, a last battle cry of secession by a group of voters who want no part of a country led by a black man, no place in a world they don't rule, no home in a society where they are simply one more minority group. Call those folks "tea partiers."
The ultraconservatives who have taken over the Republican Party are motivated by many things -- antipathy toward the federal government, conservative religious beliefs and a traditional Republican suspicion of taxes, among them. But the most powerful force animating their fight is a deep-seated racial antagonism.
Don't take my word for it. Democracy Corps, a political research and polling group headed by Stanley Greenberg and James Carville, has published a report from a series of focus groups conducted with segments of the Republican Party -- moderates, evangelicals and tea partiers.
The report confirms that Republicans, especially the tea partiers, "are very conscious of being white in a country that is increasingly minority. The race issue is very much alive." It also notes that "Barack Obama and Obamacare is a racial flashpoint for many evangelical and tea party voters."
Tea partiers believe that the Democratic Party is intent on expanding the social safety net in order, basically, to buy votes. They see "Obamacare" as a sop to that alleged 47 percent of lazy Americans who don't want to work, don't pay any taxes and live off government handouts. And, of course, those lazy Americans are, in their view, voters of color.
One focus group participant actually described the mythical America he pined for this way:
"Everybody is above average. Everybody is happy. Everybody is white. Everybody is middle class, whether or not they really are. Everybody looks that way. ... Very homogeneous."
Democracy Corps isn't the only research group that has ferreted out the racial antagonism at the heart of tea partiers' radicalism. Writing in The New York Times, journalist Thomas Edsall shared portions of an email exchange with political scientist Christopher Parker, co-author of "Change They Can't Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America." Parker said that "reactionary conservatives" believe "social change is subversive to the America with which they've become familiar, i.e., white, mainly male, Protestant, native born, straight. 'Real Americans,' in other words."
None of this should come as any great surprise. In 2010, a New York Times poll of tea partiers found that more than half said the policies of the Obama administration favor the poor, and 25 percent thought that the administration favors blacks over whites -- compared with 11 percent of the general public. Their racial paranoia has long been clear.
If anything has been surprising, it's been the potency of their hatred, the irrationality of their tactics, the venom in their backlash. But, as they see it, they are fighting for their way of life -- their control, their power.
This is an existential battle, and they're willing to burn down the country to save it from people of color. That's why they're willing to risk defaulting on the nation's debt for the first time in history.
The only whiff of good news is that tea party supporters tend to be older than average. Their cohort is diminishing and will be replaced by a younger voting bloc whose members don't hew to their antediluvian views.
But the tea partiers are going to be with us for a while, and it's going to be a wild ride.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
COPYRIGHT 2013 CYNTHIA TUCKER