By Amy Gardner and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; A03
As several states with active "tea party" groups prepare to hold important primary elections this month, the movement is struggling to overcome accusations of racism that are tinting perceptions of this loose network of conservatives.
"We don't want the worst elements to take this over," said Brendan Steinhauser, campaign director for FreedomWorks, a national group that helps coordinate tea party activists. "If they do, the tea party loses independents, it loses moderates, it loses people who don't tolerate this. Being a racist is one of the worst things you can be in this society. No one wants to be labeled this."
The challenge is made tougher by one of the defining elements of the tea party movement: No one person controls it. There is no national communications strategy. And incidents of racist slogans and derisive depictions of President Obama continue to crop up, providing fuel for critics who say the president's skin color is a powerful reason behind the movement's existence.
In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, most Americans see the movement as motivated by distrust of government, opposition to the policies of Obama and the Democratic Party, and broad concern about the economy. But nearly three in 10 see racial prejudice as underlying the tea party.
Supporters and opponents alike say the movement draws its strength from opposition to Obama's policies, but they split deeply on the race question, according to the poll: About 61 percent of tea party opponents say racism has a lot to do with the movement, a view held by just 7 percent of tea party supporters.
A Matter Of Perception
That indicates that the issue of race and the tea party is largely about differing perceptions, reflected in how people view the well-known illustration of Obama made up like the Joker from the Batman movie "The Dark Knight." Some see the image, with its exaggerated lips, as an offensive reference to minstrelsy. Obama's critics, however, say President George W. Bush was also portrayed as the Joker, as well as Dracula.
Economic anxiety and a general distrust of government are the motivations most often mentioned by tea party supporters. Opponents, who are largely Democratic and a more diverse group, see resistance to the policies of Obama and the Democrats as the movement's leading motivation, followed by racial bias.
"I think there is an element of fear that 'our white country' is now being run by a black man. There is a sense that 1950s America is gone," said Herb Neumann, a white Democrat from Tulsa. "There's a sense of loss. I grew up in the 1950s, and I don't think that moving on is a bad thing."
The question of racism and the tea party flared on the eve of Congress's divisive vote on the health-care overhaul in March, when black congressmen accused protesters of using racial epithets and spitting on them. Tea party supporters have denied the allegations.
Other incidents have received less attention: A sign in last month's tax day protest in Washington said "Go back to Kenya!" Another in Raleigh, N.C., last June depicted the president with a bone through his nose. T-shirts for sale at a July 4 tea party rally in Charlotte showed Obama standing in front of the White House, labeled "da Crib."
Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, said that at the heart of the effort to counter racism accusations is dissociating from protesters who cross the line. Around the time of the health-care vote, FreedomWorks and Tea Party Nation worked to form a federation of tea party groups to coordinate strategy and do a better job sticking to a similar message, organizers said.
At a protest in Nashville, Phillips said, there were "a couple of signs -- which I'm not convinced weren't plants from the other side -- that were really tasteless and inappropriate." The people who carried them "were told to put their signs down and leave. . . . They were literally thrown out of the event," he said.
Tea party activists also point to the minority participants in their groups. "There are a lot of people bringing up the race card," said Jim Coop, a member of the Tipton County Tea Party in Tennessee. "The tea parties I've been to, there've been black people there, Mexicans and everybody else you can think of."
Nigel Coleman, who is black, leads the Danville TEA Party Patriots in southern Virginia. He said the fact that the movement is predominantly white doesn't mean it is inherently racist.
"I went to a wine festival yesterday," he said. "Weren't too many black people there, either. Nobody called them racists."
Nonetheless, tea party activists clearly feel an urgency to end the discussion.
"As long as people who oppose us can frame the debate that way, then they can get people to stop listening to us," Coleman said. "The charge of racism is one that can be thrown out there, and it really doesn't have to be proven. But it has such a negative connotations that it can pretty much halt the debate."
Polling director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.