Understanding the tea partiers: It’s the white ethnocentrism, stupid

There’s a really important point about the tea partiers that a number of bloggers have been making, that I’ve been slow to get around to.  And I really should, as the key insights actually come from some cool political science research.  There’s surely a very real degree of racism and very unpleasant racial stereotypes going on with the tea-partiers, but rather than racism, per se, what’s at work here is much better conceived of as white ethnocentristm.  I’m pretty fond of this explanation because it relies heavily on social identity theory which was a really important part of my dissertation (and later) research.  The truth is, humans are amazingly prone to dividing the world up into “us” and “them” and thinking less about “them.”  That’s what you are seeing in the Tea Party movement, and the “them” is largely defined by race and ethnicity.  Jon Chait provides a nice summary:

This, too, fits in snugly with a racialized vision of government. Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam have conducted research showing that, even independent of ideology or partisanship, whites with ethnocentric attitudes are more hostile toward means-tested government programs, which they clearly see as benefiting other, non-white people. Meanwhile, ethnocentric whites are more likely than non-ethnocentric whites to support social insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security.

The Tea Party is not racist. But it is an almost entirely white movement, largely driven by a sense that the government is taking money away from people like them and giving it to people unlike them, with “them” understood in a racial context.

So, they’re not actually racist, just a hyper-developed sense of white identity and (irrational) fear that others, i.e., minority, are taking the fruits of their labor.

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