Frank Rich, as always, does his trade honors in Sunday’s NYT column on the real source of Tea Party anger. (The column pairs nicely with Richard Kim’s dissection of Tea Party conspiracy theories in The Nation this week.) But understanding this movement’s emotional and mental core is only part of the battle. We also have to respond to it, and that’s where progressive and Democratic Party leadership alike continue to fail. Progressives consistently meet tea partiers with sneering outrage. What we need, with increasing urgency, is leadership that explicitly aligns working-class white folks and people of color.

Rich points out the reality that America is undergoing one of the most deep, significant changes in its history. No, it’s not health insurance reform. Nor is it our economic collapse, though that’s surely part of it. Frankly, it’s not even the fact of a black president. The change is far deeper and probably far more consequential: White people will shortly lose their status as normative Americans. Whatever else does or doesn’t change, by the time Millennials are adults, no one will equate white skin with the phrase “all-American” – assuming the phrase carries meaning at all.

Rich cites this stat: Nearly half of all babies born in the 12 months preceding July 2008 were born to black, Asian or Latino moms. He’ll be able to fill his column with similar stats when we get results from the 2010 Census. Already, the demographics of public schools in the South and the West defy the notion of “minorities.” And while the absolute number of white Americans will shrink over the next generation, the Latino community will nearly triple.

All of this will eventually shape every aspect of American life. Young, colored folks will drive the economy, the culture, the politics – and the country’s rapidly shrinking, white-dominated enclaves will grow increasingly defensive about that fact. As Rich writes:

If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from.

They can’t.

But they can rip our polity to shreds in the process of trying. And if they do, it will be as much the fault of national progressive leaders as it is the conservatives we’re rightly holding accountable for the recent violence. Progressive leaders remain reluctant to confront the meaningful anxieties working-class white people face. Profiteering demagogues like Sarah Palin are filling the void.

As I’ve written previously, I’m consistently reminded of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most astute, if rarely cited analysis. “The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” he declared during the 1965 march on Selma, Alabama.  

That pact has come apart. Our manufacturing economy is gone, along with the inequality that reserved the best jobs within it for whites. The face of our politics is forever altered, by both Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. And Millennials are redefining the very idea of an American. The Glenn Becks of the world peddle the notion that sheer anger can reverse these trends. What’s the progressive response? Sneering’s not it.

The upheaval of our times present a unique opportunity to dismantle a centuries-old tool of oppression: pitting working-class whites against people of color. Either we seize the moment by addressing the “bitterness” Obama so infamously identified on the campaign trail, or we watch the public square devolve into a mob of spit and bricks. Worse, we squander a rare opening for real change.

Cross-posted at The Nation.

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