The Tea Party and Racial Prejudice

May 20, 2010 11:47am

Rand Paul’s equivocal position on desegregation in private business raises a sensitive issue for the Tea Party movement; our polling’s found that many of its critics suspect that racial prejudice is a significant factor in its support. Paul’s comment runs the risk of reinforcing that view among the movement’s opponents, and perhaps alienating some of those who now see it neutrally.

At a minimum, Paul’s position is not likely to be well-received by racial minorities, among whom, in a poll we did last year, 64 percent said they’d experienced a shopkeeper or sales clerk “trying to make you feel unwelcome just because of your race.”

At the same time, the Tea Party’s own supporters discount prejudice as a motivating factor in backing for the movement, and a statistical model we produced to evaluate this issue found that views on racial issues are not significant predictors of Tea Party support.

Among all Americans, 28 percent see racial prejudice against Barack Obama as a substantial factor in support for the Tea Party movement. There’s a vast divide beneath that number: Among supporters of the movement, 10 percent see prejudice as a factor; among those who view the Tea Party neutrally, 24 percent; among its opponents, that jumps to 57 percent. (These are the numbers who think the movement’s support is based “a great deal” or “a good amount” on prejudice against Obama. If we add in those who say it’s a factor, but “just some,” the numbers go higher.)

As we reported in our May 5 analysis, Tea Party supporters are less apt than other Americans to see racism as a major problem in this country – 58 percent do so, compared with 75 percent of all Americans. However, that appears to reflect the movement’s demographic base; views of racism as a major problem are lower among all “very conservative” Americans, and likewise among all whites, groups that are represented disproportionately in the Tea Party’s ranks.

Also, Tea Party supporters divide precisely evenly on whether Obama is doing too much or too little to represent the interests of African-Americans, with 18 percent on each side. (The rest say he’s handling it about right.) Those proportions are essentially equal among all Americans, too – 12 percent say Obama’s doing too much for African-Americans, 13 percent too little.

In sum, we don’t see evidence of racial motivation in Tea Party support. But the perception is there, particularly among the movement’s opponents, and as such poses a risk to its efforts to expand its appeal. Two other factors underscore that risk: A plurality of Americans, 44 percent, neither support nor oppose the movement, indicating they’re still at the information-gathering stage. And by a 9-point margin, 43-34 percent, more Americans in our last poll said the more they hear about the movement, the less they like it.

1:30 p.m. update: Paul's campaign has issued a statement on his view of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying, "I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws." See it here.

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