Respect the Tea Partiers; Take Them at Their Word.

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E.D. Kain on Tea Partiers and rural whites:

But I wonder, have rural whites (i.e. angry rednecks) really been in power for decades? And what do we mean by “in power” anyways? Is it possible that people in general have simply been more in control over their own destinies in the past, making most of their decisions at a local or state level? Then, as the federal government becomes increasingly stronger and more pervasive, that local and community control becomes more and more diminished? This isn’t a question of power over others, then, but one of power over ourselves.

I think E.D. is right to suggest that rural whites haven’t had much control of their destinies; more so than most Americans, rural whites have really suffered from the economic changes of the last three decades. Rural areas are disproportionately low-income, lack significant technological infrastructure, have poor educational opportunities, and have suffered from an on-going “brain drain” of young, bright rural Americans to the cities.

But for all the sympathy I have for rural whites and E.D.’s defense of them, I think he is really understating — and even ignoring — the ugly prejudices and resentment that underly rural anger. There is a deep paranoia about minorities among older, rural conservatives. This might not be “racism,” per say, but it is a belief that minorities aren’t “American” in the same way as them and theirs. “Taking America back” — especially in light of rhetoric like this — means more than stopping liberals, it means making America more familiar. Which is to say, whiter.

The cultural narrative, writ large, of the last forty years has been the slow death of white male privilege. And while the federal government has grown stronger and more pervasive, it has largely been in service of an attempt to enforce the rights of women and minorities over the protests of states and localities. Is this a power grab? In a sense, yes. Is it bad? Not in the least. And while E.D. would certainly agree that this is a good thing, I think he is blind to the ugly side of “localism”; at the same time that localism empowers communities to guide their destinies, it also empowers them to enforce their prejudices. Since the 1960s, by and large, the “control” localities have lost to the federal government is the power to ostracize and push aside marginal members of their communities.

If you take the Tea Partiers at their word; if you look at their slogans and their signs, it is pretty obvious that this “control” is part and parcel of their protest. Their whiteness and maleness (and in some cases, wealth) no longer entitles them to success, and they’re pissed off about it! Which you know, is understandable.

I don’t like their anger, but I”m at least trying to understand it. E.D. isn’t blind to it either, but he does seem to want to sweep it under the rug, in favor of a nobler explanation. I get that, but it is not at all helpful in his — or anyone else’s — attempt to understand this movement.

UPDATE: Monica cosigns Jamelle.

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Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two. You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.

3 comments to Respect the Tea Partiers; Take Them at Their Word.

  • Awesome post.

    “the ugly side of “localism”; at the same time that localism empowers communities to guide their destinies, it also empowers them to enforce their prejudices. Since the 1960s, by and large, the “control” localities have lost to the federal government is the power to ostracize and push aside marginal members of their communities.”

    YES. I think though that it’s important to keep in mind the class aspect here – usually it’s the wealthier white communities that are most successful in their NIMBY aims – against people of color, poor people, group homes, toxic sites, etc.

  • LaJane Galt

    I agree that poorer, rural whites don’t have much power vis a vis wealthier whites. However, they have always had-and knowingly used-the power of the privileges that accompany their skin tone against non-whites. One example: They could have increased union numbers, instead they shut blacks out.

    It seems that whenever discussions on poor whites comes up, white apologists want to minimize their agency and position them as hapless victims of classism. I wholeheartedly agree that there is a certain element that is extremely condescending to the teabaggers*, but I will not let the strong racist component to their them vs. us anger slide.

    *FTR I’m from the South as is my family & I’m quite aware of what rural whites are capable of.

  • ashbee

    As a black person who grew up in northern rural America, with strong roots still in northern rural America,I can say there is a certain resentment there but mainly aimed at Hispanics. If you’ve been anywhere in rural America in the past 5 years you were certain to see a “browning” of small town, USA. don’t get me wrong- most rural citizenry support this because without Hispanics many of these towns would be dead by now. but other people see this as a threat.

    Then you throw in the advent of globalization and the slow manufacturing shift to the developing world.

    At least with President W they had a bogeyman to vent their frustrations on, namely (insert Arabic name here). With the current POTUS, not so much.

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