Skip to main content

This report on the Tea Party in North Carolina details the movement’s constituent organizations, the issues they mobilize around, and their impact on public policy.  It also describes the broad-based non-electoral opposition it has engendered.  As the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR) reported in January 2014, most of the recent growth in core Tea Party membership has been in the South.  The growth in North Carolina has notably exceeded national averages.

IREHR begins with an examination of the North Carolina Tea Party membership.  We delineate where Tea Party organizations are. We analyze how many members are in each location, and whether that membership is in metropolitan, urban or rural population centers.  Our examination of chapters finds that a number are part of national organizations, and that across the state they are well-networked with each other.  It should be noted that IREHR’s research in this arena is original and one-of-a-kind.  Our data is highly valued by academics, some of whom have used IREHR’s Tea Party membership numbers as the basis for further study.  The membership data cited in this report is the basis for many of IREHR’s further findings.

This report documents the “Birtherism” found in Tea Party leadership ranks.  We also look at the opposition to the Fourteenth Amendment, and the promise of birthright citizenship and equality before the law that this part of the Constitution promises.  IREHR found militia members, and support for phony sovereign “common law” citizenship, in addition to ordinary racism and anti-immigrant nativism.  IREHR also examined the level of support for this movement inside the state legislature.

A final section of this report describes the HKonJ and Moral Monday movement.  Although the HKonJ organization was created years before the Tea Parties emerged, and had a progressive “fusionist” agenda of its own, it has become the primary vehicle for opposition to the Tea Party movement in North Carolina.  It regards itself as rooted in the post-Civil War Reconstruction and the long struggle for justice and equality that has opposed white supremacy, even its current and most ugly forms.

The Obama presidency and control of the executive branch of government has curbed, over time, the federal impact of the Tea Parties.  In a number of states, however, the Tea Party movement is truly wide and deep.  In those states, like North Carolina, the Tea Party movement’s impact has been greatest.

At its July 2010 national convention, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) passed a resolution condemning racism when it appeared in the Tea Party movement.  The oldest, largest and most respected civil rights organization called upon “all people of good will to repudiate the racism of the Tea Parties, and stand in opposition” to it.

The significance of racism within the Tea Party movement has increased since its founding in 2009 as a vehicle to protest the policies of President Obama, the first African American president of the United States.  In October 2010, when IREHR published Tea Party Nationalism, its first major report on this movement, we detailed a number of hard-core white nationalists who had taken up seats and leadership in Tea Parties.  We described the racial language that Tea Party leaders used, the embrace of the Confederate battle flag, the widespread rejection on the Fourteenth Amendment, and the widely-held perception that President Obama was not a natural born American.  In reports since, IREHR has documented the extent to which the rank-and-file anti-immigrant movement owed its existence to the Tea Parties.  In the most recent years, academic documentation of this racism has multiplied, and some studies indicate that the problem is getting worse.

Tea Partiers deny this racism at almost every juncture.  Indeed, that is one of several points that separate the white nationalists, who are discussed in this report, from Tea Partiers.  The former do not deny their racism, they extoll it and turn it into one of the central points of their ideology.  Tea Partiers, by contrast, claim often that it is their belief in the free market, low taxation and limited government that sets them apart.  They are “aware of the cultural opprobrium that attaches to undisguised antipathy.”[1]

A multi-year longitudinal study found that at their earliest moments of membership, “identification with the Tea Party was positively associated with anti-Black prejudice, libertarian ideology, social conservatism, Social Dominance Orientation and national decline.”[2]  In other words, their racism was part of an ideological construct, and less a stand-alone issue.  Overtime, however, pure libertarians tended to drop away from the Tea Party movement, while “socially conservative Whites” were more likely to increase in numbers.[3] At the same time, the study found that the whites’ levels of racial identity tended to increase.  The longer members were in the Tea Party milieu, the more racist they became.

Other academics found both racial animus and the fact that Tea Partiers were “statistically more likely to hold negative attitudes towards immigrant and sexual minorities across a range of different issues…and are firmly opposed to the idea of group equality.”[4]  Thus, Tea Partiers are motivated by a desire to protect white privileges. Another set of academics found that educational segregation was a “strong predictor” of Tea Party activism, that such segregation “shapes perceptions of economic inequality,” and separates those they regard as the “undeserving” poor, from others.[5] This complex of racism and animus is dangerous enough as it stands.  But it is set in an environment in which whites, but not blacks, regard the battle over racism as a zero-sum contest that they are losing, rather than an attempt to build a better, more moral, egalitarian society.[6]

Further, the Tea Party Movement has emerged at a dangerous point in history.  According to a 2012 Associated Press poll, the general public’s racial animus towards black people had increased during the first four years of the Obama presidency.  It found that “a slight majority now express prejudice towards blacks.”[7]  Race relations in our society as a whole are declining, getting worse, and the Tea Party movement may be part of the cause.

The Tea Party movement’s long war for its version of “constitutional” government, limited spending, reduced taxation and opposition to regulations is well known.  Less well-known and requiring closer public examination are the racism, anti-immigrant nativism and opposition to the extension of voting rights within the movement’s ranks. A wide public education on the Tea Parties’ anti-democratic failings should ensue and a cry of warning should be heard.


Next: Inside the Tea Party in North Carolina

Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind

Author Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind

More posts by Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind