Winter 2011

Barack Obama, Race & the Tea Party

Clarence E. Walker

This essay's approach to race and the Tea Party is twofold: to consider the role race plays in Tea Partiers' claim that they have “lost their country” and to question why blacks would be members of the Tea Party given its radically conservative views. To explore the latter, Walker looks to black and other minority conservatives from the past who embraced political conservatism as a means to escape stigmatization. Walker's essay argues that America has become less racist than it used to be, but he resists characterizing the nation as “post-racial.” He uses examples of conflicts between Asians, blacks, and Mexicans to further his point.

CLARENCE E. WALKER is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. His publications include The Preacher and the Politician: Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and Race in America (with Gregory D. Smithers, 2009), Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (2009), and We Can't Go Home Again: An Argument about Afrocentrism (2001).

The United States is not as racist as it was when I was born in 1941. Asians have become citizens, blacks can vote in Southern elections, and interracial marriage is now legal nationwide. However, these advances in racial justice do not mean that racism is dead in the United States; indeed, it continues to exercise a powerful hold on the American imagination. How could it be otherwise? American democracy was created on a racial foundation, and although the election of a black president represents a historic step in the nation’s racial modernization, it does not signal “the end of white America.” Even if it did, this development would not mean that Asians, blacks, Mexicans, and other Spanish speakers would get along with each other.1 Race will continue to plague American politics even as the demographic composition of the nation changes. The idea that the death of whiteness might usher in racial nirvana rests on a demographic determinism that the history of the American Republic renders problematic.

If we take a long view of race and politics, the demise of white hegemony is an interesting but premature notion suggesting that contemporary American racial liberalism, like the Garrisonian abolitionists in the nineteenth century, has been swept up in a moment of self-congratulatory wishful thinking. Both the end of slavery and the election of Barack Obama constitute important turning points in the history of race in America. And both events shed light on the Republican Party. . . . 


  • 1Hua Hsu, “The End of White America?” The Atlantic, January/February 2009.
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