The R-word that needs to be discussed

The e-mail sent late last month seemed to have nothing to do with Nevada. But actually, it had everything to do with Nevada.

“Why is the NAACP and the Liberal Media Accusing Tea Party Patriots of Being Racist?” the Tea Party Patriots asked in an e-mail blast to their online subscribers—not only ungrammatically but also inaccurately. The NAACP passed a resolution at its national convention, urging the Tea Party movement to disassociate itself from racists in its midst—just as any group should do if it claims, as Tea Partiers do, to believe in equality.

Thus, when the Tea Party Patriots say, “A few offensive posters or obnoxious remarks of one person do not represent the feelings or behaviors of the Tea Party movement,” they are agreeing with the NAACP’s position, just after lying about it.

In turn, Tea Party Patriots distributed a petition claiming similarities to the NAACP in wanting freedom and independence. The group also said, “Ironically, the NAACP has a long history of racism,” which shows its dissimilarity and dissembling. The NAACP formed in part due to anti-black riots, especially in Springfield, Ill., the one-time home of some guy named Lincoln. Also from the petition, “According to liberals, if you disagree with their thinking or with the current administration, you are not only wrong; you are a ‘racist.’”

Some liberals say those things, and are wrong: Racism motivates some opposition to President Obama; so does a lack of patriotism and so does principle—and liberals should disown them as soon as the Tea Party disowns its link to a video about Obama’s plan to assassinate American citizens, and a blog that mentions “the likelihood our president illegally thugged his way into the Oval Office.” That the Tea Partiers would misrepresent the NAACP, even after finally disavowing one of their own only after considerable heat generated in the media for his latest racially incendiary statement, says a great deal—not just about that movement. It also ties in with what we must address as Nevadans.

In the 1950s, Nevada and especially Las Vegas became known as the “Mississippi of the West.” This was unfair only in the sense that Los Angeles should have been called the “Georgia of the West,” Salt Lake City the “Alabama,” Phoenix the “Arkansas,” and so on. But Las Vegas African-Americans—and some white allies—had to fight for rights that the Constitution had long since guaranteed.

For example, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman is not a racist, and describing him as such would be wrong. But the city should have done more to revive the Moulin Rouge property and redevelop it by appealing to its historical and cultural past, not simply availing itself of the opportunity to tear down its facade after another fire on its premises.

The city also closed off F Street, a route into once-segregated West Las Vegas. Its intent wasn’t evil. But tell that to those who live and work in the area and know its history. Tell that to an African-American middle class that always teeters closer to the brink of decline and suffers from a higher rate of unemployment while living in a state that continues to deny its economic and social failings.

When Obama spoke about his minister, it was to begin a national conversation on race (a good conversation opener would have been why his opponents thought he had to agree with everything his minister said). When he had beers with a black Harvard professor and the white Cambridge, Mass., policeman who handcuffed him, it was to begin a national conversation on race.

Unquestionably, we need a national conversation on race, partly because we find it so difficult to have one. We also need one locally. And those conversations should be broadly defined, because race is more than African-Americans.

When Tea Partiers cannot or will not figure out what the NAACP said by simply reading and repeating what it said, when Arizona passes a blatantly racist immigration law that a majority of Nevadans polled agree with, and when the city talks about the need to tear down the Moulin Rouge for the sake of a West Las Vegas redevelopment that has been developing almost as long as the community has existed, we need to talk, and we need leaders willing to lead both the conversation and the response to it.