A couple weeks ago, this New York Times column by Charles Blow irked me — in a post at The American Scene, I made two arguments: 1) Mr. Blow showed profound disrespect for a black man, a Latina woman and an Asian man who spoke at a Tea Party rally by calling them minstrels. 2) It’s unfair for liberals to laud the act of highlighting diverse voices when it is done by a television network, a university, or a corporation, criticize conservatives for an insufficient commitment to highlighting diversity, and then criticize the right for running a minstrel show because it chose a speaking lineup more racially diverse than the people in attendance.
Four writers criticized my post, and the followup post that I wrote: Adam Serwer, Jamelle Bouie, Jonathan Bernstein, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. All are writers whose work I enjoy, and I spent a lot of time thinking about their comments. Soon enough, it was apparent that we all agreed about one thing — it was unfair and inaccurate for Mr. Blow to assert that the speakers in question were minstrels.
What did we disagree about? It is harder to say.
Mr. Coates offers a couple of worthwhile insights: he says that being “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” is something that political movements inevitably endure if they invest in the project of racial progress, and that the conservative movement must change more than optics if it hopes to win over minority voters — it must change some of its attitudes and its approach to certain policies. All that seems accurate to me, and I thank Mr. Coates for putting it more succinctly and eloquently than I could’ve, but I don’t think it is inconsistent with anything I wrote in my posts, or that it rescues Mr. Blow’s column from either of the criticisms that I offered. In a followup post, Mr. Coates writes that “no one likes to be called a racist, but you don’t evince a concern about racial equality because you hope to avoid that charge.” Agreed. I’d want the Tea Party movement to stand against racism, and for racial progress, even if it were attacked everyday as being racist — and again, I don’t think that is inconsistent with anything I offered in my initial posts, or that it is a defense of Mr. Blow’s column, which made some very specific unfounded allegations about a particular Tea Party rally.
What about Mr. Bouie, Mr. Bernstein, and Mr. Serwer?
They agreed that though the speakers in question weren’t minstrels, Mr. Blow was justified in finding something “untoward” about their role at the Tea Party rally. “It flows from the fact that those voices are forced to engage in elaborate tribal rituals to show the white Tea Partiers that they’re on their side,” Mr. Bouie wrote. “… conservative activists have a habit of categorically defining people of color as ideologically hostile, so that their mere presence isn’t enough to convince organizers or attendants that their sympathies are shared. In turn, this suspicion requires those singular voices of color to ‘perform’ and show their loyalty, in order to gain acceptance.”
I didn’t find any evidence of elaborate tribal signaling or prejudicial stereotyping in Mr. Blow’s column.
After the first round of back and forth, Mr. Serwer began to zero in on what I think is the root of our disagreement.
He quotes this little bit from the Charles Blow column:
The speakers included a black doctor who bashed Democrats for crying racism, a Hispanic immigrant who said that she had never received a single government entitlement and a Vietnamese immigrant who said that the Tea Party leader was God.
Mr. Serwer interprets that passage as follows:
I won’t speak to the third example, but the first two speakers’ statements are explicitly related to racial superstitions they assume their audience holds about them. The doctor is signaling to his mostly white audience that he is not the type of black person who ‘blames racism for everything,’ and the Hispanic immigrant is letting his audience know that she’s not some foreign moocher who came to the U.S. for a handout. The fact that reaffirming the racial resentments of conservatives is the price of the ticket for a person of color with conservative views is pretty infuriating. Race is being ‘used as a cudgel’ against these Tea Partiers by their own ideological fellows in ways Friedersdorf has not begun to consider. That’s what I meant when I said he was being ‘oblivious.’
On reading Mr. Blow’s column, I interpreted the same passage in a totally different way. In a couple of academic settings, I’ve been close friends with “students of color” with beliefs about race and politics that didn’t square with the liberal consensus. They got a lot of grief for it, complained a lot in private conversation about how they were treated, and predisposed me to react the same way to the passage above as the blogger at The Blanks Slate:
I am black. I am a (small “L”) libertarian. I have, at various points in my past also self-identified as “conservative” and “Republican.” And, as most black people of our general political stripe can attest, with it comes some pretty nasty insinuations and a lot of name calling.
“Sell-out.” “Oreo.” “[Uncle] Tom.”
It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to be branded a race-traitor by your own people; that explicit and ultimate denigration of your identity and character that says what you believe is incompatible with what you are, where you come from, and how much you care about other people like you; that your politics shows that you are ashamed of your blackness–and thus should be ashamed of who you are.
Later in the same post, he writes:
Indeed, I would say that Blow, Bouie and Serwer may have misidentified whom exactly the black tea partiers were signaling to with their “I’m not a racist” signs. Is it really all that unlikely that those who have, for years, endured smears and hateful venom from their racial kindred be a tad sensitive to accusations of racism-by-association from the likes of Keith Olbermann or thinly veiled accusations of Tomism from Charles Blow? (It’s not like these insults are new. Seriously. At all. You can even read a book about it.) National media personalities who don’t know us, and apparently don’t understand us, just throwing out words like “minstrel” and “racist” just because some assholes show up fully displaying their ignorance. Yes, the Right has a racist past. But, duh, the Left does too.
BREAKING: AMERICA HAS A RACIST PAST.
I’m not a tea partier, but I know something about how they feel. I’ve found it quite ironic that we have to defend ourselves for being different–for being individuals and thinking for ourselves–against vicious slurs by supposedly enlightened ones who think we should all think and vote the same.
When I read Mr. Blow’s description of “a black doctor who bashed Democrats for crying racism” and “a Hispanic immigrant who said that she had never received a single government entitlement,” I didn’t assume the speakers were nervously signaling to other Tea Partiers that they were “good minorities,” I thought their rhetoric was a reaction against liberals and media folks who, by their lights, implicitly insult them as self-hating minorities every time they write that the Tea Party movement is racist. It irks some conservative “people of color” when they hear that, so much so that some of them react by saying what amounts to, “Hey everyone, liberals say this movement doesn’t like black people — well how do they explain my presence here? Take that liberals who think all minorities think like they do!” I didn’t see any nefarious signaling going on because I presumed I was seeing another instance of that kind of reaction, which I’ve seen before.
I actually think that Mr. Serwer and I were both wrong to make our respective assumptions (though it’s worth noting that I didn’t further assume that he was being so unsophisticated about racial conversation that he should be accused of obliviousness — the charge he levied against me). In fairness, neither of us were at the rally — it’s perfectly plausible that he could’ve been right, and that I could’ve misinterpreted things; and vice-versa. Mr. Blow just didn’t present enough information to draw any sort of conclusion, and I think my complaints about his NY Times column were justified in part because if he actually witnessed a minstrel show, or elaborate tribal signaling rituals, he would’ve had damning details to report.
In an effort to get to the bottom of all this, I decided I’d try to contact the speakers so that I could interview them, and ask them about their Tea Party experiences, whether they felt pressured to signal solidarity with the crowd due to their race, etc. That Mr. Blow rendered them as a black, a Hispanic, and an Asian, rather than using their names, didn’t make the reporting any easier, but I finally spoke to the Latina woman, Adryana Boyne, whose speech is actually online — and although I haven’t as yet reached the black doctor, Delwin Williams, or the Vietnamese immigrant, Tom Ha, I have been directed to videos of their speeches that are also posted on YouTube. On the whole I think they vindicate my position, and I am certain that they further undercut the account offered by Mr. Blow, who misrepresented things rather strikingly.
Let’s begin with Mr. Ha, the Vietnamese immigrant. As is obvious the moment he is introduced by the MC, he wasn’t asked to speak because he is a minority, or to add racial diversity, or to be a minstrel — he’s there because he fled Vietnam when the Communists took over, and like so many Vietnamese Americans who escaped that horror, he embraced conservatism out of anti-Communist zeal. In his estimation, as in the estimation of many older Vietnamese in Little Saigon, Orange County, near where I grew up, American liberals are but communists in waiting — who better to speak at a Tea Party rally than someone who fled the reds, and sees in Barack Obama the thing he escaped? There is a lot to object to in his speech, but I defy anyone to demonstrate that it is racially “untoward,” or that he is “forced to engage in elaborate tribal rituals.” (The video is here — be warned that if you want to see Mr. Ha speak, you’ll be forced to endure some downright awful music that is annoyingly dubbed over his words.)
Also note how glib and misleading it is for Mr. Blow to dismissively characterize his speech merely writing merely that he describes the Tea Party leader as God, as though that is the main thrust of his remarks — it comes at the end of his speech, and isn’t put as absurdly as Mr. Blow makes it sound.
The speech of Dr. Delwin Williams can be seen here. It begins at the 3 minute mark, when he introduces himself as someone who wants to speak about “the Obamacare bill” from his unique perspective “as a physician.” And speak he does for almost four minutes, reading from notes and pontificating on the health care system. He obviously doesn’t feel as though being black requires him to signal his solidarity in any special way before he’ll be taken seriously — indeed, he just launches into the substance of his remarks straight off, and earns his share of applause.
Mr. Blow makes it seem as though a black doctor just climbs up on stage and bashes Democrats for crying racism, but actually, the black doctor makes most of his remarks on his profession, addressing race starting at around 6:45, when he briefly makes three assertions: 1) there are so many cries of racism nowadays it’s hard to tell which ones are real and which aren’t; 2) the Tea Partiers are called racist, but being involved in two local Tea Party groups, he’s been well treated and found everyone to be good non-racist people; 3) though all Democrats don’t falsely cry racism, the ones that do, and progressives (who he seems to view as race-baiters), should be ashamed of themselves. Whatever you think of all this — and I think some of it is obviously unfair to progressives — it is difficult to watch his speech and conclude that he is creepily being forced to prove that he is “one of the good ones,” as Mr. Blow put it, or especially to suggest that he isn’t taken seriously until he engages signaling on matters of race.
Finally there is the “Hispanic immigrant who said that she had never received a single government entitlement,” from whose bio I’ll now quote:
Adryana Boyne is a Political Commentator, Political Consultant and the National Director of VOCES Action, a non-profit organization that helps to inform, motivate, and empower Latinos in returning our country to its conservative values and to educate and help non- Latinos to engage with the Latino community. Mrs. Boyne also is a GOP Spokesperson to the Media on Hispanic Affairs and a spokesperson to the Spanish Media. She was elected at-large as a National Delegate at the 2008 Texas GOP Convention. Born in Puebla, Mexico, she became naturalized as an American citizen in 1994. She has received a Presidential appointment as a Member of the Texas Board of the Selective Services (Appointment given by President Barack Obama on 02/04/09 under the recommendation of President George W. Bush). Mrs. Boyne was honored in 2009 by the RNC among the Top “Hispanic Republicans Making Their Voices Heard”.
Here is the video of Ms. Boyne’s speech. It’s the most difficult to characterize. She is definitely quite explicit about her loyalty to the United States, in the “I’m a proud legal immigrant” kind of way, and that plus the welfare line makes one think that maybe she felt some need to signal something to the Tea Partiers, as Mr. Serwer suspected. But at 6:53, she says, “Now the liberals always portray all Latinos as ignorant, entitlement grubbing persons who always vote Democrat. Well, I’m a Latina, and I don’t want entitlements. I don’t want government run health care.” It sure sounds like Ms. Boyne is reacting against the way she perceives that liberals stereotype her, not the way she imagines that her fellow Tea Party activists see her, and that’s at least a big part of why she keeps saying that she’s never taken an entitlement.
After talking to her on the phone, I am persuaded that she really does think liberals see her in the light she describes (though of course I think it is absurd to say that “the liberals” are “always” portraying Latinos that way). Additionally, her whole life’s work is spent trying to convince fellow Latinos that their natural home is the Republican Party, on the theory that they are fiscally and socially conservative, so playing up her identity as a Latina who doesn’t fit into the stereotypical box is an occupational necessity in addition to an honestly held conviction. Later in the speech, Ms. Boyne launches into Spanish — a lot of her work is doing outreach to Spanish language media — and she says that though the bulk of Tea Party folks are supportive, she’ll occasionally run into small groups who complain that her whole talk isn’t in English, or who hassle Spanish language media that Tea Party organizers invite to cover their events. Far from signaling solidarity with these Tea Partiers, Ms. Boyne gives them an earful, and then continues doing what she does.
Does she also note that she’s a loyal American because otherwise some folks will notice her Latina accent, conclude she’s an immigrant, and wonder “what kind of immigrant” she is? I’d bet a lot of money that some people do wonder just that, shameful as that is, and perhaps that knowledge is part of why she takes special care to note that she’s a loyal American. On the phone, I asked her about this, and she said that she includes the part about her oath as an immigrant because she is proud of it, and because sometimes she thinks that the fact that she took an oath to the country means she is in some ways more patriotic than a native born American, who never affirmatively chooses the values of this place. (It’s also worth noting here that, even during the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama very deliberately framed himself as someone uniquely American, signaling his status as a member of the tribe rather than an other — the unfortunate necessity for this, or at least its usefulness, doesn’t exist only within movement conservatism.)
Mr. Blow also mentions AlfonZo Rachel’s speech in his column. It is here, and neither minstrely nor signally.
After reviewing all this video, there may be minor disagreements or differing interpretations about a single speaker, and especially the complicated Ms. Boyne, but on the whole, I think it is accurate to conclude that my initial complaints about Mr. Blow’s column were well-founded, and the assumption that all or even most minority speakers at this Tea Party rally felt a need to elaborately signal their loyalty in order to be accepted is wrong. In their posts on this subject, my interlocutors suggested, in ways that sometimes puzzled me, that I am averse to acknowledging aspects of movement conservatism’s history that are racially creepy. That isn’t the case. I understand the historical and cultural reasons that many blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities are suspicious of this largely white populist movement.
But understanding the suspicion and where it comes from doesn’t mean refraining from defending the Tea Partiers, and especially specific gatherings of a some small percentage of Tea Partiers, when they’re attacked unfairly. In this instance, the defense happens to involve disproving some allegations about a black man, a Latina woman and a Vietnamese man that were themselves grounded in racial prejudgment, and corrosive to the ability of these people to be judged as autonomous individuals rather than stereotyped due to the color of their skin. Having said that, I think this has been a productive conversation, I hope I’ve represented the insights and arguments of everyone in a fair way, and I hope that if there are objections or disagreements that remain, folks will keep it going now that we’ve got actual footage to discuss rather than a misleading, reductive paragraph in a newspaper column.