Is the Tea Party movement racist? Seems to me it is or it isn't depending on what kind of racism one means.
There's no question that opposition to President Obama from the right is vehement to a degree not really explained by his policies. This is not unlike the wild opposition to President Clinton, who was less progressive than Obama but also incurred loathing and fear on the right. Because Obama is black, the idea has arisen (and a certain amount of polling data in support of it has been presented) that this vitriol is based in racism. The fact that something similar was encountered by President Clinton, who is white, would seem at first glance to argue to the contrary. In fact, I contend that it supports the idea, if one examines the likely explanation for what DID generate that opposition.
Some racism is overt, crude, unsubtle, and blatant. Some racism is covert (or even unconscious), subtle, internalized, and unacknowledged even to oneself. Very little of the opposition to Obama is the result of overt racism. But a great deal of it is at least in part the result of covert racism.
An overtly racist objection to Obama would exist when a person feels, and admits to himself or herself (if not always to others), that a black person should not be president. Evidence of overt racism would be found when a person actually says something like this, or when a person is affiliated with a racist or white nationalist organization (e.g. when the person is a regular poster at Stormfront). Some of this does exist of course, but I am prepared to accept that the overwhelming majority of the Tea Party movement isn't part of it.
A covertly racist objection to Obama would exist when a person has no problem with a black person being president, but does have a problem with the idea that a black person could be elected president. That is to say, the person holding this attitude doesn't think black people are inferior to white people or inherently unqualified to be president, and may be willing to acknowledge that Barack Obama is a sharp guy who is just as capable at the job as a lot of white guys who have held it before him. It's not him. It's what his being elected says about what has happened to America.
I had a similar impression about the vitriolic opposition to Bill Clinton. Clinton's a white southern boy, of course, but he's also a notorious womanizer who evaded the Vietnam draft, smoked dope, grew his hair long, and married a tough feminist b**ch. For those who are inclined to freak out about the cultural changes that occurred over the 1960s and 1970s, he was a walking red flag, not because of his politics (which are pretty far right as Democrats go), but because of his cultural trappings and who he is as a person. In their America, the America they fondly remember from their childhood and would like to believe still exists -- in the REAL America, as they imagine to themselves -- someone like that would provoke revulsion and could NEVER win the nomination of a major party, let alone actually be elected. The vitriolic opposition wasn't really about him. It was about what his electability said about how America had changed and in what directions.
This impression was reinforced during the impeachment fiasco, which led Paul Weyrich to say, "I no longer believe that there is a moral majority. "I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually share our values. If there really were a moral majority, Bill Clinton would have been driven out of office months ago. It is not only the lack of political will on the part of Republicans, although that is part of the problem. More powerful is the fact that what Americans would have found absolutely intolerable only a few years ago, a majority now not only tolerates but celebrates."
In a similar way, Barack Obama's election says something about what America has become and is becoming that some people don't want to accept. And that change is not so much cultural as racial. Although there are cultural overtones, too.
White people are in the process of becoming a minority in this country. It hasn't happened yet, but it's in train. When it does happen, whites will be the largest minority, but still will represent less than 50% of the population. In the sepia-toned memory photographs of Obama's detractors, real America is a land predominantly of white people. Sure, it has nonwhites in it, and if you ask these guys they'd happily tell you that racial discrimination and Jim Crow and segregation and all that nasty stuff from our past had to go and they're glad it's gone. At least most of them will, and most will even mean it and believe it. But what they envision is an America of white people who are magnanimously, righteously non-racist and willing to generously tolerate and accept minorities in our midst on a (somewhat) equal basis, 'cause that's what great and wonderful people white Americans are. The idea of white people no longer being a majority, and thus no longer able to call the shots and be magnanimous and generous and so on, that doesn't sit well. But that's what the future holds.
As we approach that future, it becomes increasingly probable that someone non-white will gain the White House, and now it's happened. Obama was elected because America has a whole lot of black and hispanic citizens who voted for him in lopsided majorities. Obama was elected in addition because a whole lot of young people -- including young white people -- don't care that the country is heading for a white-minority future. Obama being elected president says that the uncomfortable future is closer than they thought, and his dusky face on the television above the presidential seal is a harsh reminder that the world of those sepia-toned memory photographs no longer exists. It makes them feel out of place in the world that surrounds them now.
And that feeling infects everything else, and magnifies small political objections into big ones, and causes irrational and unbelievable accusations to be believed without serious critique.
It isn't racist in the sense of being bigoted and thinking no black guy should be allowed to be president or can possibly have the smarts for it. But it is racist in the sense of being based in a lament for the fact that America is rapidly ceasing to be a white people's country.