Charges of hateful racism have been hurled at the tea party movement over the last year, but little substantive work has been done to actually prove these accusations. But a new analysis at the scene of this year's 9/12 Taxpayer March on Washington --organized in part by national tea party organizer FreedomWorks -- confirms that the vast majority of activists are energized over narrower concerns about the size and scope of government and federal spending policies.
UCLA graduate student Emily Ekins says she spent the summer in Washington studying the tea party dynamic and working as an intern at the Cato Institute, a libertarian policy think tank. It was at the 9/12 march where Ekins decided to put the rumors of racism to rest.
Dividing the crowd into rows and taking a snapshot of each sign she passed, Ekins quickly accumulated a sizable sampling of 250 sign photos, the majority of which reflected a "limited government ethos," she recently told the Washington Post. Under this banner, she said, rally-goers advertised their support for liberty, low taxes, reduced spending and deficits and concerns about creeping socialism. (Click here to see some of Ekins' photos)
Examples ranged from the simple message "$top the $pending" scrawled in black-marker block letters to more elaborate drawings of bar charts, stop signs and one poster with the slogan "Socialism is Legal Theft" and a stick-figure socialist pointing a gun at the head of a taxpayer.
There were uglier messages, too - including "Obama Bin Lyin' - Impeach Now" and "Somewhere in Kenya a Village is Missing its Idiot." But Ekins's analysis showed that only about a quarter of all signs reflected direct anger with Obama. Only 5 percent of the total mentioned the president's race or religion, and slightly more than 1 percent questioned his American citizenship.
Contrary to the claims of prominent Democrats such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the NAACP which recently publicly condemned the tea party over racism allegations, Ekins' study concluded that the attention tea party rallies have received over the last year overwhelmingly focused on the more controversial messages, the clear minority in the movement.
"Really this is an issue of salience," Ekins told the Post. "Just because a couple of percentage points of signs have those messages doesn't mean the other people don't share those views, but it doesn't mean they do, either. But when 25 percent of the coverage is devoted to those signs, it suggests that this is the issue that 25 percent of people think is so important that they're going to put it on a sign, when it's actually only a couple of people."
Adam Brandon, a spokesman for FreedomWorks, told the Post that his organization did not instruct protesters to limit their messages, but he said he personally patrolled the crowd and asked a few protesters carrying signs depicting Obama as Adolf Hitler to leave the rally.
The latest attacks on the tea party is a new campaign ad from the American Federation of Government Employees union which dismisses what it considers "bumper sticker solutions":
"The Republican tea party Pledge to America says, 'Cut taxes for the rich and cut government,' " AFGE President John Gage says in the ad. "Some have even said, 'Close the government down.' Then what? Food and mine inspection - gone. Forget about border patrol or keeping terrorists locked up. And returning veterans? Give them a cheap voucher instead of a quality VA hospital. Let's dump in the rivers and pollute the air again."
Toward the end, Gage says: "We're all angry and frustrated. But when you vote, remember who got us into this mess in the first place."