NPR commentator and Fox News talking head Juan Williams has been all over the media lately dissecting the Tea Party movement. In an April 2 Wall Street Journal editorial, Williams decried the liberal stereotype of Tea Party activists as fringe racists, saying that in fact, Tea Partiers represented mainstream Americans. Liberals, Williams warned, would be making a huge mistake to dismiss Tea Party activists as a bunch of loonies.
Then yesterday Williams was on NPR's "Morning Edition" to elaborate his theory. Tea Partiers, he told us, have a legitimate gripe: among the middle class white men that make up the bulk of the Tea Party activists, suffering is real. Unemployment is high. Tea Partiers are lashing out against very real economic pressures. And the Obama administration has seemingly turned its back on regular working people. Said Williams:
In a recent New York Times poll... it said two-thirds of the people who identify as members of the Tea Party said that the recession had caused them a hardship or a major change of life. And 41 percent of white men, remember, voted for President Obama in '08. Now, his approval rating among white men is down in the mid 30s.
We called up South Florida Tea Party leader and State Coordinator Everett Wilkinson and asked if he thought Williams' assessment of the Tea Party was on target. Would he characterize South Florida Tea Partiers as mostly under- or unemployed white men motivated into activism by their own economic woes?
Not at all, Wilkinson says.
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"The characterization of the Tea Party movement as made up of angry white men is false. In fact, we have more women on the leadership side of the movement than ever. We're seeing more and more minorities in our South Florida base, particularly Cuban -- so much so that we're now distributing a lot of our printed material in Spanish."
And is the movement powered by people who are out of work, or suffering financial hardship?
"Yes and no," Wilkinson says. "We're certainly hearing stories out there from people who have been directly affected by the economic downturn. But they are not the majority. Most of the people involved in the South Florida Tea Party have jobs. So they're not so much affected by today's economy as that they are just saying, 'Enough is enough.' They're looking at the future, as much at what will happen tomorrow as what is happening today. The future of America is tied to today's spending."
The average Tea Partier in South Florida, Wikinson says, is a lot likelier to be an angry Cuban mommie than a middle aged white man. "The mothers of America are in fact the most adamant," Wilkinson says. "I had an immigrant lady in Miami call me, and she was so enthusiastic -- I could hardly understand what she was saying because she was talking so fast with a heavy accent. She said she'd lived in Cuba, and she didn't want to go back. The United States was supposed to be different."