News outlets across the country have latched on to a survey that suggests TEA party supporters tend to be resentful toward minorities. Newsweek published two different pieces on the same item, while a handful of newspapers also gleefully relayed the findings.
There are just a few problems. First, the survey was conducted by a University of Washington professor bent on proving racism exists against President Obama. Second, his entire sample of white TEA party supporters comprised exactly 117 people. Finally, many of the questions had nothing to do with racial resentment.
But we can't have facts getting in the way of a media narrative.
As soon as the survey was released April 7, news outlets were all over it pushing the survey results as empirical evidence, and many not even pretending to sound neutral on the subject. The leader of the study, Political Science professor Christopher Parker, was not asked about his own political leanings or his apparent pre-occupation with finding racism afoot.
First up to bat was the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, whose blog writer Scott Sunde promoted the survey without question on April 8:
A University of Washington survey has found that Southerners and conservatives are more likely to support the Tea Party.
What's more, the director of the survey says his data show that the Tea Party might also be about race. Those who think the government has done too much to help African Americans are 36 more likely to support the Tea Party.
"While it's clear that the Tea Party in one sense about limited government, it's also clear from the data that people who want limited government don't want certain services for certain kinds of people. Those services include health care," said Christopher Parker, the assistant professor of political science at the UW who directed the survey.
See the sleight of hand there? If someone opposes government-funded "services" such as healthcare, it's obviously because they don't want "certain people" to receive those services.
Yet Sunde didn't challenge that statement or bring up anyone on the right to contradict it. Even worse, Sunde didn't link to the data for readers to see it for themselves. Parker's conclusions were presented as fact with no effort to do vetting of any kind.
Perhaps if Sunde had done some investigating, he'd have noticed that Parker was involved in an almost identical study in 2008. Back then, Parker accused Republicans of "thinly veiled allusions to Obama's race" and insisted that "race was a consistent narrative used by Obama's opponents."
What did Parker and his colleagues cite as examples of this? Code words, of course:
We begin this article by proposing that although Obama ultimately won, we cannot reject that race-and in particular racism-played a significant role in the outcome. During the campaign, race was a consistent narrative used by Obama's opponents. His primary opponents, particularly Hillary Clinton, and Republicans in the general election used racial references to attack the Illinois senator, citing him for his perceived inability to connect to "real working Americans" ~Bazinet and McAuliff, 2008; Canellos 2008; MacGillis 2008. A Republican in Georgia used the term uppity to describe Obama, a clear racial reference ~Los Angeles Times 2008. Even the infamous "Joe the Plumber" charged Obama with seeking to redistribute wealth, raising age-old stereotypes of African Americans as radical, welfare dependent, and not as hardworking as the White working class. In short, he accused Obama of seeking to take money from hardworking "real Americans" to give it to "those people" ~Rohter 2008.
So you see, calling someone uppity is a "clear" racial slur. Saying that someone doesn't understand "real working Americans" is some kind of code for saying they don't understand white people. Oh, and calling attention to President Obama's own self-proclaimed plan of wealth distribution means you think black people are lazy.
With such a lax definition of racism, it's no wonder Parker sees it everywhere.
A year later, Parker is back with a brand new study that relies on the same kind of fast-and-loose method to interpreting Obama's critics.
The day after the Seattle PI piece ran, Newsweek's Arian Campo-Flores picked up the meme for a post at The Gaggle blog. Much like Sunde, Campo-Flores accepted the results at face value and gave Parker a platform to spout more accusations:
So a new poll by researchers at the University of Washington caught my eye. The findings are sure to fan the flames further. "People who approve of the Tea Party, more than those who don't approve, have more racist attitudes," says Christopher Parker, a University of Washington professor who directed the survey. "And not only that, but more homophobic and xenophobic attitudes." For instance, respondents were asked whether they agreed with various characterizations of different racial groups. Only 35 percent of those who strongly approve of the tea party agreed that blacks are hardworking, compared with 55 percent of those who strongly disapprove of the tea party. On whether blacks were intelligent, 45 percent of the tea-party supporters agreed, compared with 59 percent of the tea-party opponents. And on the issue of whether blacks were trustworthy, 41 percent of the tea-party supporters agreed, compared with 57 percent of the tea-party opponents.
35% of the white TEA supporters surveyed? Since there were 117 of them asked, that was a grand total of 41 people. Not even kidding. And the 55% of white disapprovers? Since only 66 of them participated, that was 36 people.
Parker is attempting to prove that white TEA supporters are more prone to see blacks as lazy - based on the difference between 41 and 36.
That's what Newsweek considered empirical evidence.
This NBer was curious to see what else respondents were asked, and to Newsweek's credit there were links this time. However, the survey results offered as proof revealed some interesting methods of questioning. Observe a few of the questions asked of TEA party supporters, taken directly from Newsweek's links:
- Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without special favors. (Agree)
- Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class. (Disagree)
- Over the past few years blacks have gotten less than they deserve. (Disagree)
- It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites. (Agree)
TEA party sympathizers think everyone should work hard and not expect special favors based on race! Scandalous!
But Campo-Flores was convinced. The piece ended with him quipping, "The University of Washington study, however, suggests that in terms of their views, the tea partiers aren't quite so mainstream after all."
Apparently in the mind of a Newsweek writer, mainstream America wants "special favors" for certain races not afforded to others, and if you disagree you are obviously racist.
On April 21, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. joined in the choir. Pitts penned an op-ed that accused conservatives of "yearning for an America that's gone" - that is, the good old days when minorities were persecuted.
Pitts wasn't interested in dissecting the scientific nature of the survey; indeed, he dismissed all possible skepticism by saying "some of us needed no polling data to know this." What followed was a screed against white conservatives who "discovered" an aversion to socialism only after an African-American got elected:
After all, if the tea partiers were truly only concerned about so-called ``tyranny,'' they'd have started howling when President Bush claimed he need not be bound by laws with which he disagreed.
If they were truly only worried about a ``socialist'' takeover of private industry, they'd have yelped when he took over troubled financial institutions.
If they were truly only anxious about the budget, they've have hollered when he spent a $128 billion surplus into a $407 billion deficit.
If they were truly outraged over their income taxes, they'd have screamed at Bush first, given that their taxes are the same as when he was in office.
Of course Pitts didn't care that the legendary battle cry "kill the bill" was used under the Bush administration precisely when conservatives were busy yelping about the bailout.
No no, that simply cannot be, or it would contradict the narrative of racism.
Once again, Parker's study was peddled as matter-of-fact scientific data that only served to prove what the media already knew.
But Newsweek wasn't yet satisfied with the amount of coverage given to the study. On Monday, Campo-Flores returned to write a brand new piece about the same old survey, this time published directly on Newsweek's front page as website exclusive:
Ever since the Tea Party phenomenon gathered steam last spring, it has been plagued by charges of racism. Placards at rallies have depicted President Barack Obama as a witch doctor, denounced his supposed plans for "white slavery," and likened Congress to a slave owner and the taxpayer to a "n----r." Opponents have seized on these examples as proof that Tea Partiers are angry white folks who can't abide having a black president. Supporters, on the other hand, claim that the hateful signs are the work of a small fringe and that they unfairly malign a movement that simply seeks to rein in big government. In the absence of empirical evidence to support either characterization, the debate has essentially deadlocked.
Until now, that is. A new survey by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexuality offers fresh insight into the racial attitudes of Tea Party sympathizers.
It is absolutely astounding that Campo-Flores called it a new survey. There was no mention of his own prior blog post, no admission the survey had been making rounds in the media for weeks. All of the information was presented as some fresh discovery - and this time Campo-Flores parroted the points made in the Miami Herald:
If Tea Party supporters are doing relatively fine, what are they so riled up about? These studies suggest that, at least in part, it's race. The country that the Tea Partiers grew up in is irrevocably changing. Last month, new demographic data showed that minority births are on the verge of outpacing white births. By 2050, Hispanics are expected to account for more than a quarter of the American population. The Tea Partiers "feel a loss ... like their status has been diminished," says David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which examines issues of race. "If you listen to [their] language, it's always about 'taking our country back.' But it's really not taking the country back as is. It's taking the country back"-as in time.
Bositis finds the movement's arguments about reckless federal spending unpersuasive. Why, he asks, weren't they up in arms when President George W. Bush launched two costly wars and created a new unfunded mandate with his Medicare prescription-drug plan? Why didn't they take to the streets when he converted a surplus into a massive deficit? "I don't like to be in a position where I'm characterizing people as being racially biased," says Bositis. "But when the shoe fits, what do you do?" Given modern societal norms, "they know they can't use any overtly racist language," he contends. "So they use coded language"-questioning the patriotism of the president or complaining about "socialist" schemes to redistribute wealth.
That sounds almost verbatim like the points Leonard Pitts Jr. forwarded on April 21. Strange how none of that came up in Campo-Flores's first piece or in the Seattle PI just a few weeks before. As soon as Pitts found a way to advance the ball, that became the new angle for the survey.
Add it all up, and this is a classic example of how the media blatantly promote a story that fits their own agenda with little to no regard about the truth.
As Leonard Pitts Jr. succinctly admitted, when it comes to bashing TEA parties, no proof is really necessary anyway.