Exploring Race in the NYT Tea Party Poll

By Guest Columnist Apr 15, 2010

By Victor Goode Yesterday’s New York Times poll of "tea party" supporters shows that while their most important concern is the economy, they often view this issue through the lens of racially tinted glasses. Not surprisingly, no public figure is more distorted in their perception than President Obama. The racial perceptions are subtle, but nonetheless striking in several ways. For example,


  • Fifty-four percent believe that the Obama administration’s policies favor the poor over the middle class. But with unemployment rates in Black and Latino neighborhoods hovering at twice the national average, and in some areas going as high as 25 to 30 percent, it’s hard to see how that belief is based on anything other than vast misperceptions about life in communities of color.
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  • While 73 percent of the tea party supporters believe that Blacks and whites have equal opportunity in society, 52 percent feel that too much has been made of the problems facing Black people. The roll that race plays in shaping these perceptions is further revealed by the 30 percent who still believe that Obama was born in another country and the 92 percent that think the president is a socialist.
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  • While a great deal of their anger is focused at Congress, they are overwhelmingly antagonistic toward President Obama. Approximately 88 percent disapprove of the way he is handling his job. That disapproval rating is 93 percent on health care and 91 percent on issues affecting the deficit, even though Obama inherited these massive problems (including $1 trillion in war spending) from the Bush/Cheney administration.
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  • Meanwhile, President Bush continues to get a 57 percent approval rating despite the fact that he presided over the collapse of Wall Street and the big bank bailout, both issues that the tea party supporters are furious about.

Yet, despite these racially tinted perceptions, there does seem to be a strain of pragmatism that runs through this group. By significant majorities (65 percent) they continue to support abortion rights (45 percent with limits), are close to supporting civil unions (41 percent) and surprisingly 53 percent support either present levels or increased levels of immigration. And despite their very strong anti-big government sentiments, significant majorities of tea partiers support both Medicare and Social Security. What’s it all mean? It’s the economy stupid! But it’s also that Black guy that they still just can’t seem to connect with. Victor M. Goode is an associate professor of law at the City University of New York and a board member of the Applied Research Center.