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Why so few blacks among tea partiers?

I went to my first "tea party" last week. I've never been that lonely in a crowd before. Seeing only one other African-American among 100 or so people in the Wheatfield Community Center, I have to admit I felt like . . . well . . . like a black guy at a tea party.

The turnout left me wondering why the movement seems to attract so few African-Americans. Once you get past one obvious answer -- TV footage of crazies and disputed reports of black congressmen dodging spittle -- there's still an undeniable fact: Blacks complain about government, taxes and lousy services just like everybody else.

But even if everyone loves a party, blacks are skipping this one. A Quinnipiac University poll had 7 percent of both blacks and Hispanics saying they are tea partiers. Yet you'd strain your eyes trying to find them at last week's Niagara Patriots meeting or among the 250 at a Buffalo rally last weekend.

Local organizer Rus Thompson says the turnouts were not entirely reflective. He says there are two or three blacks among the 15 or so at leadership meetings, and some events draw more.

"I do want to see more," Thompson said, ticking off issues like lousy urban schools and the state's cap on charter schools, which directly impact blacks and Hispanics. He blames political opponents for media coverage that paints tea partiers as racists.

But if the movement is serious about attracting blacks, it's also going to have to check its own rhetoric.

While the tenor of the Wheatfield meeting was civil -- or as civil as you can be while talking about punching House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the mouth -- some of the buzz words have unmistakable undertones. When gubernatorial wannabe/loose cannon Carl Paladino rails against poor people flocking to New York to "get a check," it's a throwback to Ronald Reagan's welfare queen.

New York's overly generous Medicaid program is a legitimate issue. But Paladino's verbiage is hardly the way to invite blacks into the movement, even if it will reduce their taxes.

But rhetoric aside, maybe this is a circle that can't be squared.

Samuel L. Radford III, co-chairman of the Buffalo Local Action Committee, turns to etymology to explain the tea party movement's racial homogeneity and why it's not likely to change: Conservatives, by definition, want to conserve what they have.

"As the door opens for more people to take part in the American dream . . . that means less for them, or that it's going to cost them more," he said.

As Democrats enact reforms like health care and a jobs bill, it gives more of the dispossessed -- particularly minorities -- a vested interest in political participation. That will "change everything," Radford said, to the consternation of those who like things the way they used to be.

There's also one other factor: For many blacks, government may be evil; but compared with the rest of society, it's the lesser of two evils. It's easy to see an attack on government as an attack on the equality that government had to mandate and often still must enforce.

So where does that leave the tea partiers?

Putting aside the lunatic fringes and taking them at their word that they want to return power to the people, they need to define which people.

Thompson says he's already arranging meetings with black groups in Buffalo and Niagara Falls. He sees fertile common ground in taxes, education and other such issues. Still, there are skeptics.

"Center-right movements have traditionally turned out badly for African-Americans. You can't deny history," Radford said.

Which leaves tea partiers with a choice: They can actively reach out and rewrite history, as Thompson seems to want to do, or they can repeat it.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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