Good for the NAACP. We need an honest conversation about the role of race and racism in the Tea Party. Thanks to a resolution passed this week at the venerable organization's national convention, we'll get it.
The minute you say there are racist elements in the Tea Party—reflected in signs at rallies, billboards, and speeches from some of its major figures—the pushback goes from cries of persecution to charges that those who are criticizing divisiveness are themselves the dividers.
So let's dispense with the obvious: Most of the opposition to President Barack Obama comes from people who are against his policies, not his race. The Tea Party is motivated primarily by right-wing ideology, not by racism.
But guess what? Nothing the NAACP is saying contradicts this. Its contention is that there are clearly racist strains in the Tea Party and that the movement's leaders and the politicians who profit from its activism should denounce them plainly and unequivocally.
Here's what Ben Jealous, the NAACP's president and CEO, asked of the Tea Party: "Expel the bigots and racists in your ranks or take the responsibility for them and their actions. We will no longer allow you to hide like cowards."
The NAACP is doing exactly what conservatives have done for decades in demanding that liberals and progressives separate themselves from left-wing extremists who trashed America, burned flags, and praised foreign dictators. The racists are the Tea Party's flag-burners. It's fair to ask the democratic left to condemn extremism. It's fair to ask the same of the democratic right. (Note the small "d.")
I reached Jealous in Kansas City, where he was attending the NAACP convention, and he went out of his way to emphasize that his group is not making a blanket charge of racism. "We have never called the Tea Party racist," he said. "We know there are black Tea Party members and we want black people to feel comfortable taking leadership positions in all parties in this country."
But speaking of Tea Party leaders, he added: "We've seen the signs, we've heard the slurs, and all we're asking is for you to act responsibly and say there's no space for bigots in the Tea Party."
Sarah Palin struck back Tuesday on her Facebook page, declaring herself "saddened by the NAACP's claim that patriotic Americans who stand up for the United States of America's constitutional rights are somehow 'racists.'"
That, of course, is not what the NAACP is saying.
She went on to refer to "America's past racism," and identified herself with Ronald Reagan, who said it was "a legacy of evil." And then Palin brought the conversation back to herself. "Having been on the receiving end of a similar spurious charge of racism," she said, "I know how Tea Party Americans feel to be falsely accused."
This is a shameless, narcissistic dodge. "Palin wants to construct a false argument," Jealous said in the telephone interview. "Palin wants the terms of debate to be about people calling her racist, and nobody's calling her racist." The NAACP, he said, is simply challenging her along with other Tea Party leaders to separate themselves cleanly from "racist behavior" by some in the movement.
"We have seen what's happened in the past when we let groups play 'Hide the Ball' with racism in their ranks," Jealous said.
He's right, and it's time for mainstream conservatives to follow the admirable example of my Washington Post colleague Michael Gerson who recently deplored "Tea Party excess" and spoke of the need to distinguish "the injudicious from the outrageous."
Let's start with former Rep. Tom Tancredo's speech at a Tea Party convention last February that never got the attention it deserved. The reason we elected "Barack Hussein Obama," Tancredo said back then, is "mostly because I think we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country." By the way, he was cheered for this.
Should anyone be surprised that members of the NAACP might be alarmed over the suggestion that we need "literacy tests," phony devices once used to keep African-Americans from voting?
Guilt by association is wrong, but it's entirely legitimate to insist that those who believe in democracy and freedom take forceful steps to disassociate themselves from people in their movement who peddle racism, intolerance and fear. That's what the NAACP is asking. It's your move, Sarah.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).