What sets members of the tea party movement apart from their neighbors? The media has speculated that religion and political ideology may play a significant role, but one progressive group is claiming tea partiers are just "more comfortable with white privilege" than other Americans.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, an ordained minister, theology professor and senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP), points to a recent survey which found 80 percent of self-described tea party members are non-Hispanic or white. According to Thislethwaite, this data suggests whites in America are nervous about the changing racial landscape in America and are drawn to TV and radio personality Glenn Beck who she claims is on a mission to "redefine whiteness."
“I can generalize and say those attracted to the tea party are more comfortable with white privilege as a value and believe that leveling the playing field for minorities is not the business of government,” Thistlethwaite said during a panel discussion Tuesday at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.
Thistlethwaite also suggested that this tea party "value" runs contrary to the beliefs of Evangelical Christians who work in the U.S. and abroad to help people in need.
“Everybody knows 2050 is projected to be the year when racial ethnic minority Americans become the majority of the population,” Thistlethwaite said. “MSNBC reported in March that 2010 may be the tipping point year where more racial ethnic minority babies are born than those identified as white.
“So there is a racial shift in this landscape, and I think the fact that we have an 80 percent reporting of ‘white’ as the racial category of the tea party, you cannot discount the role of race in interpreting this data,” Thistlethwhite said.
“And I think one thing that I observed, certainly, and in talking to people was…a lot of expressed anxiety and repressed fear: People said, ‘I am afraid. I’m afraid of this. I’m afraid of that. I’m afraid of other things.’ She said these anxieties are part of the appeal of people like Glenn Beck.
“So when you read that vocabulary and you let this data talk to you, one of the things it was saying to me, certainly in some public figures, like Glenn Beck, this appears to be obviously true – this is an attempt to redefine whiteness as victimization and to see whiteness as the object of racial discrimination,” Thistlethwaite said.
E.J. Dionne, Brookings senior fellow and panel moderator, also weighed in when a reporter from New Yorker magazine asked the panel to characterize the tea party movement as either a new phenomenon or a resurgence of the conservatism from the Old South a la Jesse Helms:
“If you look at their language, their references to the Constitution, their attitudes toward the peril the country faces, as I see it, I think in so many ways, I think the Tea Party is the old right with a cable network, a group of talk shows, social networking, some rather wealthy donors, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck,” Dionne said.