A few words on the meaning of tea.
They are occasioned by a recent commentary from Keith Olbermann of MSNBC. The commentary scores the tea party movement as the outcry of people who haven't made peace with the fact their president is black.
Everything else, said Mr. Olbermann, is euphemism. Taxes? Socialism? Budget deficit? No, he argued, when you strip away the pretenses and rationalizations, "it's still racism," and they hate the president only because he is black.
One is reminded of the 2008 campaign in which many of Barack Obama's opponents insisted people only "supported" him because he was black. It was an offensive claim, in that it assumed that people were so imbecilic that skin color alone was sufficient to win their votes.
The truth, it always seemed to me, was more nuanced. People liked Mr. Obama's policies, his eloquence and his fierce intelligence, and the fact that he was black, that his election would turn history on its ear, was a desirable bonus, but only that -- icing on the cake, but not the cake itself.
I submit that a rough inverse of that dynamic now helps define the tea party movement.
Ask yourself: would we even be having this discussion if Condoleezza Rice were president? If Ms. Rice, Republican stalwart, conservative icon, and black woman were chief executive, would the first pot of tea ever have been brewed?
One suspects the average tea party participant would tell you emphatically, "no," and that this "no" serves as his personal shield against charges of racism. How can I be racist, he would demand, when I know in my heart that I would've supported Condi to the max?
If you concede him that, then you have to ask yourself what it does to Mr. Olbermann's contention that racism is the whole raison d'etre of the movement.
The answer leads us back again to nuance, albeit in mirror image. The tea party people distrust Mr. Obama's policies, his eloquence, his fierce intelligence, and the fact that he is black then becomes the final straw. To put that another way: I doubt most tea partiers hate Mr. Obama strictly because he is black, but it sure doesn't help.
My point is not that Mr. Olbermann's argument is wrong but that it is incomplete.
Yes, race is obviously a major component of the reaction against the president. The recurring use of racist imagery and language, the attendance at tea party events of a racist group like the Council of Conservative Citizens, settles that definitively.
But ultimately, people seem moved by something even bigger than race. This is race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, "culture," and the fact that those who have always been on the right side, the "power-wielding" side, of one or more of those equations, now face the realization that their days of dominance are numbered.
There is a poignancy to their responsive fury because one senses that the nether side of it is a choking fear. We are witness to the birth cries of a new America, and for every one of us who embraces and celebrates that, there is another who grapples with a crippling sense of dislocation and loss, who wonders who and what she will be in the nation now being born.
One hopes they will find answers that satisfy them, because the change they fear will not be turned back. No one ever volunteers to return to the rear of the bus. So for all the frustration the tea party movement engenders among the rest of us, one also feels a certain pity for people like the woman last year who cried, plaintively, that she wanted her country back.
As if she didn't realize that it is already, irrevocably, gone.
Leonard Pitts' column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
A few words on the meaning of tea.