Thanks to the brouhaha of NPR executives and speaking off the record, this question is again in public view. I thought it was strange that the exec would be in hot water for speaking the truth. Several people replied to this comment by asking for "evidence." It seemed to something so obvious that it was common knowledge -- just something no one talks about. Like cancer. But I guess some "evidence" needs to be provided. Another key difference is what exactly "racism" is.
For starters, a cursory glance over the evidence is available by typing "is the tea party racist" into a Google search. Many of the articles are several years old now, but they detail how this idea got started. But the great majority of the "evidence" is available only after one considers what "racism" is (please permit me a mini-genealogy of racism).
Slavery in the South made it easy to identify racism. If you were pro-slavery, you were racist. Racism was obvious. Blatant. Concrete. But as the "war against racism" has been fought, racism has given up its obviousness for a more inconspicuous form. If racism were obvious, it would be denounced by (almost) all sides for what it is. So racism moved into the cracks. It became amorphous in order to take the shape of the institutions and power relations that it found itself in. It was no longer concrete, but abstract. This can even be seen immediately following the Civil War. Slavery was blatantly racist. But poll taxes . . . poll taxes on the other hand were a bit more slippery. "What do you mean 'racist'? We charge EVERYONE a poll tax. You couldn't be more equal than that!" This same insidious racism has been alive and well since Jim Crow. It's just become more and more hidden.
This brings us back to "evidence." Because of the slipperiness of racism, there is no "evidence" for it. There are only hints. Only vestiges that remain. There is no "smoking gun" to prove racism. But there are motives and clues that point to it. One of these is to consider who benefits from something. So we look at the Tea Party's platform. Who stands to benefit from it? If the Tea Party were magically able to push through their top 5 legislative wishes, who would be better off because of it? Who would be worse off? Of course we are talking about hypotheticals, but it seems pretty clear to me that cutting taxes and cutting spending would disproportionately benefit whites and disproportionately hurt minorities. Just like the poll tax.
We can also point to another hint. Again, it's no smoking gun, but it points to something fishy. If the Tea Party is a national movement counting some hundreds of thousands of "members," and 90% of those members are white . . . well something's a little bit funny there.
Another hint -- is it a coincidence that the Tea Party movement gained steam at the same time that our chances of electing a black president increased? A little fishy.
Lastly, there was the issue of several racially suspicious signs and statements made in the formative months of the Tea Party. Hurling racial slurs at black lawmakers. Depicting Obama as a monkey. Now maybe these were just the rebellious outliers who ended up being thrown out of the movement. But again, it's a hint. Maybe they just cleaned up their act but maintained the ideology.
So is there "evidence" or "proof" that the Tea Party is racist? No. Are there hints? Definitely. Do I think the Tea Party is racist? You betcha.
Update: John has posted his own take on this over on his blog: What is racism and Why the Tea Party is Not