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GOP's 'critical race theory' astroturfing is the new tea party

The tea party's low-key racism won the 2010 midterms. Now the GOP wants a high-key racist repeat.

Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, chair of the Republican Study Committee, recently sent a memo to members telling them to “lean into the culture war.”

The “backlash against Critical Race Theory is real," Banks wrote, saying that the opposition to te idea of teaching that maybe America’s systems are tainted with racism is “the same vision shared by civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.” (For the record: It is not.)

The grievances of white conservatives are now front and center, making the current hyperfocus on “critical race theory” more honest than the tea party ever was.

It’s a stance that gives me flashbacks to the early days of the Obama administration. The first tea party marches and protests began in 2009, just months after the election of the first Black president. But the conservative activists pulling the strings behind the supposed grassroots revolution went to great lengths to assure the media and American public broadly that this uprising wasn’t about President Barack Obama’s race — it was about his policies.

But that was back when America was still in the afterglow of Obama’s history-making inauguration, with many Americans convinced that we were now in a post-racial society. Fast forward to 2021 and the same people who were organizing and mobilizing the tea party’s forces are still calling the shots in the MAGA movement’s attempted return to power. The only difference is there’s no need to pretend that this isn’t about race. In fact, the grievances of white conservatives are now front and center, making the current hyperfocus on “critical race theory” more honest than the tea party ever was.

The origins of the tea party and the initial Tax Day-related protests that first drew huge crowds made it easy to sustain a lingering fiction that the movement was concerned primarily about economics. The growing U.S. national debt and rising deficits at the height of the Great Recession diverted from the racist animus that was clear to anyone willing to look. That same energy persisted right through to the desperate hunt for the cause of former President Donald Trump’s 2016 win — “economic anxiety” among struggling whites provided a consistent through line between the tea party’s demands and Trump’s victory.

By then there had been enough academic research to show that, yeah, racism was a pretty big part of the tea party’s surge. As early as 2011, Harvard researchers had found that tea partiers’ opposition to new federal programs “is concentrated on resentment of perceived federal government "handouts" to "undeserving" groups, the definition of which seems heavily influenced by racial and ethnic stereotypes.” A 2015 study of self-identified members of the tea party movement likewise found that aside from considering themselves conservative Republicans, “racial resentment is indeed among the strongest predictors of TPM membership.”

And yet when delegates to the NAACP’s annual convention approved a resolution denouncing the tea party movement’s “extremist elements” in July 2010, calling upon its leaders to “repudiate those in their ranks who use racist language in their signs and speeches,” the response was immediate: How dare you call us racist?

The National Tea Party Federation’s statement condemned not racists in their midst, but “the outrageous and untrue accusations promoted by the NAACP and their political allies on the Left.” Particularly striking was the statement from the late Andrew Brietbart, founder of the eponymous website that would go on to become a primary source of “news” for members of the far-right and alt-right:

The NAACP – like the Democrat party which it now exclusively serves - is in search of a desperate butt-saving play to protect the Party from November electoral losses. People’s eyes are now wide open to the complicity of the once-respected civil rights organization and once-respected Party.

But as Ta-Nahesi Coates rightly pointed out in The Atlantic: “Racism tends to attract attention when it's flagrant and filled with invective. But like all bigotry, the most potent component of racism is frame-flipping — positioning the bigot as the actual victim.” The tea party’s economic cover story was the latest iteration of the war on big government and its programs designed to counter two centuries of racist subjugation of minorities in this country.

Now compare that to the current tempest in a teapot that conservatives have whipped up over anti-racism being taught in American schools. That furor is being cast in right-wing media as just a bunch of concerned parents worried that white students are being taught to hate themselves and America thanks to radical socialist teachers. (It certainly helps that the phrase “critical race theory” is being used as a buzzword, almost entirely separated from its original meaning.)

In fact, NBC News this month reported that a growing group of activists have been amplifying the voices of a small minority of parents onto the national stage:

Conflicts like this are playing out in cities and towns across the country, amid the rise of at least 165 local and national groups that aim to disrupt lessons on race and gender, according to an NBC News analysis of media reports and organizations’ promotional materials. Reinforced by conservative think tanks, law firms and activist parents, these groups have found allies in families frustrated over Covid-19 restrictions in schools and have weaponized the right’s opposition to critical race theory, turning it into a political rallying point.

And, as intended, that energy is being harnessed on the political front to help propel Republicans back into power, just as the tea party catapulted the GOP to capture the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterms. Look no further than this Politico article from last week, which quotes Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News and one-time senior White House staffer under Trump:

“This is the Tea Party to the 10th power,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser who has zeroed in on local school board fights over critical race theory, said in an interview. “This isn’t Q, this is mainstream suburban moms — and a lot of these people aren’t Trump voters.”

Another big difference between then and now is that the anti-CRT movement isn’t seen as a fringe issue, beneath the attention of establishment Republicans. While the tea partiers were courted and stoked, there was genuine surprise among the old guard when tea party candidates began knocking off longtime GOP elected officials in primaries, fueling the current fear among GOP members from speaking out against Trump and his supporters.

No, this time the anti-CRT push is the establishment Republican agenda, as Banks’ note to House Republicans makes clear. “The memo is just the latest sign that the right is hoping to capitalize on the grassroots angst over critical race theory and excite its base voters in next year's midterms,” Politico’s Melanie Zanona wrote. She’s right — and they aren’t being shy about it. After losing suburban white moms in the 2020 election, the goal is to make enough of them afraid that they turn on the Democrats in the midterms. This, in turn, will build upon the GOP’s efforts to limit voting rights in the states and provide the groundwork to be able to declare winners in elections — including the presidency — without having won a majority of votes cast.

It’s almost refreshing after spending years debating whether the tea party’s adherents were simply mad that white Americans appeared to be losing ground against minorities that Republicans are being so blatant this time about their motivations. Almost.