Tea-partying while White

At a recent extended family gathering a relative of mine asked me, “So what do you think of your President now?”  I indicated my firm support, briefly explaining why I thought health care reform was really important and good, and then asked for her opinion.  “I don’t know enough [about policies] to say, but he just scares me.”  I asked why, expecting something about the deficit or “big government,” but she said, “I don’t know why.  He just scares me.”  I tried to probe for specific reasons, but she reported that she wasn’t sure and didn’t “want to talk politics.”

I teach my students in undergraduate critical-thinking courses that it is not legitimate to attribute negative motives to people unless you can credibly explain how these motives are related to what the person actually says.  This is a particularly important principle, I say, if you disagree with someone – and even more important if you strongly disagree.  By that standard, it would be wrong to charge Helen with “racial prejudice,” let alone “racism,” but in the absence of specific reasons to be scared of Barack Obama, it’s also hard to imagine that her fear does not have something to do with his being a black man.

Helen (not her real name) is a white senior-citizen widow living almost entirely on Social Security in a modest one-story house that she owns outright.  She never attended college and worked as a clerical worker after she helped raise her three children as a stay-at-home mom.  Her husband, who also had no college, was a front-line supervisor in a steel mill now long gone.  Later in another fleeting conversation she expressed interest in and sympathy for the Tea Party.

I’ve known Helen most of my life, and I have never heard her use explicitly racist language or express anything but a kind of paternalistic sympathy for the plight of African Americans, with whom she has had almost no experience.  There are many nonracial reasons why she would not and did not vote for President Obama.  She is a life-long Republican, a small-town Protestant, and in her early ‘70s, somebody who is rooted in a more traditional set of gender roles and family arrangements that Democrats seem dismissive of.  But she also lives in an atmosphere that is common among the white working class as I’ve experienced it – an atmosphere infused with a free-floating anxiety that any gains for black people will come at some loss to white folks like her.

This atmosphere is not specific to working-class whites, but my guess is the anxiety is more intense for the working class than among more securely affluent whites.  It is this anxious atmosphere of a racial zero-sum game that I suspect informs many of the “supporters” and “sympathizers” of the Tea Party movement, not the boldly explicit racism of the 10% who have told pollsters that “racial prejudice against Barack Obama” is one reason for their support of the movement.

Of course, the class position of the Tea Partiers isn’t clear.  Recent polling has revealed somewhat contradictory notions of who they are, with a Gallup Poll finding, “Tea Partiers Are Fairly Mainstream in Their Demographics,” while a New York Times/CBS News poll proclaims, “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated.” Both headlines, it turns out, are both true and deceptive.  Both polls show that Tea Partiers on average are whiter, older, and have higher incomes and higher levels of education than the population as a whole, though by somewhat different degrees.

The most widely used demographic class marker for electoral politics is whether a person has a bachelor’s degree – if they do, they’re counted as “middle class,” if not, then “working class.”  By this marker, self-identified Tea Party “supporters” are substantially working class, 68% for Gallup and 62% for the Times.  This is less than for the population as a whole (which is 70% for persons 25 years or older), but still “fairly mainstream.”  Thus, Tea Party supporters are disproportionately middle class, but the majority is working class just like the population as a whole.

Neither white racism nor racial zero-sum anxiety is class exclusive.  The real tragedy  is that many working-class whites like Helen do not have a clear sense of the actual policy alternatives provided by the Democrats and Republicans.  Part of the reason is that our public discussion is allergic to principled debate about public policy.  Not that it never occurs, but most often it is framed by politicians’ caricatures of each other’s policies.  Meanwhile, political reporters use their expertise not to explain the different policies and who might benefit or be harmed by them but rather to explain the different political tactics behind the caricatures.  In the absence of clear reporting about policies as if they might actually matter to real people, Helen can be satisfied to “not know enough” while forming opinions based on vague anxieties related to appearances and antique loyalties.

According to these polls, Tea Party self-identifiers (the vast majority of whom are not active participants in movement activities) are a demographically diverse group of mostly conservatives and Republicans.  At somewhere around 20% of the adult population, they are a decided minority of all voters, of all white voters, and of all working-class whites.  It is also worth noting that in all national polls, the attitudes and views of Southern whites disproportionately affect the national numbers.  In the 2008 Presidential election, for example, only 43% of whites voted for Obama across the nation, but 52% did so in the Northeastern states, 49% in the Western states, and 47% in the Midwest.  The national number is so much lower because only 30% of whites in the South voted for the man who scares Helen.

Jack Metzgar

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18 Responses to Tea-partying while White

  1. Xavier Onassis says:

    The teapartiers have no clothes, they have no credibility:

    Nary a one of them can name you a minimalist-government paradise anywhere on planet Earth – because none exist. Case closed.

    Libertarianism = perfectly simple-minded belief in freedom without justice.

    The historically illiterate seem to think the American Dream of Freedom was all about the freedom to grow limitlessly rich at the expense of your neighbors – who sacrifice as much, if not far more of their time and energies to doing what produces the goods and provides the services than any member of the leisure class does.

    Clue for all anti-egalitarians, all of whom are subrational and hysterically, viscerally attached to the geno-sadistic and ultimately fatal idea of overpayunderpay economics: The American Dream of Freedom was all about THIS:

    It was The Great Dream of FREEDOM FROM the tyranny of the European Wealthpower Giants!

    Only work creates wealth. Market forces ceaselessly and automatically shift wealth one direction and work in the other direction. Any sane species would install a counter-mechnanism! We could deconstruct the wealthpower giants without shocks to the economy by making private inheritance public – to name one easy-peasy way.

    All governments are pirates if you let them be pirates – and you are letting them be pirates.

    How simple is it that where overwealth is, tyranny/slavery is?

    We are supposed to be a Democratic Republic. Money is power. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer means the rich are getting more and more for a unit of work and the poor are getting less and less for the same unit of sacrifice. Democracy is by definition impossible with a wealthpower inequity factor residing in the billions – which we have, along with the proportional violence reliably engendered by the injustice injury to people.

    Governments have been devoured by superwealth. Leaders will only change their minds when the people change their ideas. Stop keeping your brains away from your reality, anti-egalitarians. Start demanding correction for the myriad invisible legal thefts in the system. Discover the fundamental misconceptions your economic beliefs are erected upon.


    The 6 billion people who are not you are your environment. Stop filling your environment with economic and violence pollution. Fall out of love with the diabolically stupid idea to have other-earned wealth. Limit fortunes the maximum possible self-earned fortune – which is less than $10 million.

    You can have pay justice or you can have history on steroids kaboom.

    Choosing to ignore this is choosing.

    There is no reason to have super-rich.

    There is every reason not to have super-rich.

    Don’t be a geno-sadist.


  2. Jack Labusch says:

    Libertarians and Tea Partyers may want to ask themselves whether America’s unique group health insurance contracts have anything to do with the free right to contract they go on about. They don’t, do they?

    I’ve voted Libertarian Party for twenty-five years whenever the opportunity presents itself. Free markets, free minds, all that—the guys with the zeros after the decimal point. There’s a pretty fair case to be made that group health insurance contracts as known in America are inimical to good sense and the public interest. No one makes it.


  3. Will Shetterly says:

    I hope Rand Paul’s victory will help move the debate away from identity politics: he opposes foreign wars and supports legalizing drugs like marijuana, both of which should help the poor, and thereby disproportionately help brown and black folks.


  4. Varg Freeborn says:

    Mr. Metzger,

    If you really are interested in starting a true dialogue concerning our nation’s politics, perhaps it would be more productive to focus on the ideological dispute, which is the biggest problem, and move away from the race-baiting, which is a very miniscule part of our politics. This may be hard to believe for those who live in the academic, intellectual, media facilitated or political elite vacuums, but race really does not play a large part in it for those of us who are down where the rubber meets the road. Your experience is obviously limited; an anecdote cannot overturn an entire body of evidence.

    I would hardly call Grandin’s views credible. Perhaps none of you realize that the Palin Tea Party Express and Glen Beck do not really represent or embody the movement? Trust in the media, and it’s interpretation of polls, is intellectually self-destructive.

    The truth about race should only be discussed when it concerns the abuses of minorities such as the unconstitutional and unsuccessful ‘war on drugs’ that targets minorities and decimates urban neighborhoods, and the fact that government over-spending creates inflation, which is a drain on the nation’s capital accumulation, and a direct tax that disproportionately hurts the poor and minorities the worst. The programs created to help the poor actually hurt them, and keep them poor. What they do accomplish is the growth of government, and a transfer of wealth from the people to the government.

    In terms of a zero-sum game, to focus on race seems ridiculous. I tend to believe that it is typically a tool used to slander one side or the other, and generally it is the left slandering the right. This actually bolsters any of those feelings that may exist among a minority in the movement. The truth about gains and losses in our nation’s politics rests more within a reverse, or one-sided, zero-sum formula—the winners experience losses in proportion to their own gains. For some time, especially since Clinton, when one party seizes control they quickly thereafter experience a backlash from the other side. This usually leads to a deadlocked government and eventually another shift in party control.

    This aggravates party loyalists, but it is essential in our democratic system. The branches of government should NOT always work in unison. That is not what the separation of powers was intended to do. A monarchy works in unison at all branches, and that is what men fought and died to be free of. FDR claimed the Supreme Court was a “horse pulling in a different direction,” and needed to be put into line. Obama recently made similar claims coupled with unilateral decisions bypassing Congress. Bush was also guilty of this. Moves like this bring about massive political backlash.

    Unfortunately, even major shifts in party control do not change things and we still get more growth of government, spending and inflation, resulting in a loss of the civil liberties and wealth of the people.


  5. Jack Metzgar says:

    We need a set of words about white racial attitudes that doesn’t lump everything from using the wrong word to lynching under the same category of “racist.” In my blog last week I explicitly did not say that the Tea Party movement as a whole is “racist” (beyond the 10% who proclaimed it to pollsters). I tried to introduce a fuzzier concept for consideration, namely an “anxious atmosphere of a racial zero-sum game” that I suspect is particularly strong among working-class whites, inside and outside the Tea Party. I have nothing but my own (anecdotal) observation and experience to back it up. I think the notion that there is a zero-sum game by race is false, and especially so of the Obama administration’s actions and policies, but I see that notion as being something less than “racist.” For a credible view that the Tea Party “is all about race,” a view I do not share, see Greg Grandin at TomDispatch.

    The polls I reported on and used were standard random samples of the entire U.S. population, so the vast majority of those self-reporting as Tea Party “supporters” likely never attended a Tea Party event (some of which are pretty expensive) and certainly are not TP “organizers.” Neither Ron Paul and his supporters nor Dick Armey of FreedomWorks get to pick and choose who identifies with their movement, and Jesse Shaffer is right to point out that: “Of course the racists are going to jump on board with the Tea Party just by virtue of the fact that both groups oppose Obama . . .” But for that very reason, non-racist Tea Partiers need to be especially careful to avoid blanket name-calling about who is and is not a “real American” and to stay focused on protesting actual policies.


  6. Varg Freeborn says:

    First, calling people teabaggers–a very nasty, derogatory label–and further generalizing an entire group with that label, appears to be the same as calling black people the ‘n’ word, and generalizing an entire group under that stereotype. Are you really guilty of this?

    So, your brother-in-law is a racist, and is sympathetic to the tea party. In your mind, that makes the tea party racist? Couldn’t we use that same “Aristotle has a beard…” logic and say that since the KKK is Christian, then all (or even most) Christians are racist? Of course, none of it makes logical sense.

    As for the percentage of the budget spent on social welfare, it’s a little bit more than 1%. Try 11.5% on welfare, 16.8% on health care. http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/us_welfare_spending_40.html#usgs302 On top of that, our current debt is 92% of our GDP. That is like owing .92 cents on every dollar you earn, and this is not counting the unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Fanny and Freddy. Nor does it include the upcoming health care costs. A quick run through the math and perhaps you could be the one to explain how it all will be paid for. Not to mention the fact that government has not been able to run a solvent entitlement program to date. Not one.

    There are many, many people in the limited government or tea party movement that would prove you so very wrong. Your hostility, as clearly laid out in your comment, is against the hard-line GOP’ers that backed all the horrible things Bush did. You are correct, those particular individuals did nothing while unconstitutional wars were waged, constitutional rights demolished, and the debt and size of government were tripled. However, you are very wrong in allowing MSNBC, CNN, NPR (or even Fox) to tell you that the tea party movement is a racist, or a Republican, or a pro-corporation movement. Many of us were out here long before the so called tea party got going. Thousands of us understand the difference between capitalism and corporatism (which is what we have), and know that when a corporation leverages the legislature against competition, and socialized losses on the backs of the people, that we do not have a free market; not even close.

    By the way, where did all of the liberal anti-war protests go? Since Obama got in, and continued all of the same nightmare policies of Bush’s war state (despite all the promises), hasn’t been much of a peep out of you.

    Our nation is heading for catastrophe, and all of you are so busy fighting partisan rhetorical politics that no one can address the real issues. We are overspending, bankrupt, militarily overextended, and have all been living above our means on illusory circular credit wealth for too long. The dollar is inflating, and the poor are being assaulted the worst by it. This gets worse every time one of you liberals support massive domestic spending, or you GOP’ers support massive war spending.


  7. elecpencil says:

    I worked at a plant that closed in 1999. I had 28 years but had messed up pensions from having had several different owners. Four years of my pension were stolen and many other years were in 401 k’s my plants owners had invested only 1% of our pay in. We had taken so many concessions over the years we couldn’t afford to put much in on our end.

    I got no sympathy from my wealthy brother-in-law. Now that he thinks his taxes may go up (earns over 250k) he thinks I should attend Tea Parties with him.

    My brother-in-law is a long time racist. He doesn’t like a black man in the White House. He thinks we need to do something about our debt. He had no problem when his guys (Reagan and GW) ran up the debt.

    I marched several times with over 100,000 people in DC to end the Iraq War. It is still going on. Will 200 Teabaggers in Warren or 300 in Canfield change anything? Will 10’s of thousands Teabaggers in DC? Where have these Teabaggers been during NAFTA, GATT and all manner of corporate welfare? On the side of the corporations and the rich. Meanwhile they bitch about 1% of the budget going to social welfare. What a joke.


  8. Tumbleweed says:

    Quite right.
    But in our story, the government has taken the constitution and turned it upside down, and in doing so has taken up the role of Robin Hood by stealing the real wealth of the middle class to (er-hem) re-distribute to the poor, AND… the freaking poor BANKER’S for God’s sake. Don’t forget those poor bastages. We couldn’t live if their private enterprise were to go belly-up.
    Oh brother…where art thou?
    Fact is, we could use a few REAL Robin Hood types these days. But “they” have it all figured out. Soon you will be introduced to the digi-dollar system, in which there will be a tax any time a digi-dollar moves across the screen, directly deposited into the government account for use to “spread the wealth” of make believe.
    And everyone will live happily ever after. NOT!


  9. Varg Freeborn says:

    Well, a few of the posters have done a wonderful job at representing the tea party movement and pointing out that it is not racist, or Republican.

    What I would like to comment on is the obvious hypocrisy of this article. You point out, “I teach my students in undergraduate critical-thinking courses that it is not legitimate to attribute negative motives to people unless you can credibly explain how these motives are related to what the person actually says.” Then, in one bold, arrogant move, you commit the very act which you are condemning. You use some obscure example of an uninformed, non-political tea party “sympathizer” to segue right into a blast against the tea party with the racist label.

    So, do you have a lock on knowledge and wisdom here? Are you so infinitely wise that you can draw such conclusions of racist motives without being able to “credibly explain how these motives are related to what the person actually says?” Or do you feel that your citation of one poll amounting to 10% of those polled constitutes enough of a majority to irrefutably draw your conclusions? How many real tea party organizers have you spoken with? How many tea party meetings have you sat in on?

    Your assertion of racism is based on your belief that there is an “absence of specific reasons to be scared of Barack Obama” (or to oppose his policies). Do you really believe that this would fit the definition of causality? If you do, let me be the one to break that bubble and tell you: no, it doesn’t.

    Of course, being a seasoned professor, you know all of this. You know what you have done, and what you are doing.

    You state how you support the health care reform and believe it’s good, I wonder how you think it will be paid for? I would be curious to hear your wonderful explanation of how government can continue to function, spending money that it does not have, doubling the deficit each successive year and monetizing the debt it creates (that means printing money to pay off the debt). Maybe then you could explain how the resultant inflation is not a direct tax on everyone, even the poorest among us? Of course, I am sure you would cite the CBO’s claim that the reform will save us money. Then you could explain how this time it will be different in that the CBO’s projections will actually mean something, not like every other projection in the past that ran into massive cost overruns. I am sure it would be great.

    I would be curious what you would do if you ran across someone who could back-up their dislike of this current (and past) administration’s policies with educated, intellectual arguments based upon economics and not emotion. I can assure you sir, if you taught at YSU and I entered your class, it would not be so easy.

    Varg Freeborn
    Young Americans for Liberty at YSU


  10. Will Shetterly says:

    Jesse, you’re quite right about Robin Hood. And he gave that money to the poor so they could buy food, shelter, health care…


  11. Jesse Shaffer says:

    To Tumbleweed, I’m pretty sure that Robinhood robbed from the GOVERNMENT that was confiscating the labors of its citizens in ridiculous taxes.

    He was fighting his government. You know, the kind of government with a small group of self-annointed “elites” that knew better what to do with the peoples’ money than the people did. Sound familiar? The Anglo Monarchs of old were total Progressives.


  12. Tumbleweed says:

    I am neither a racist or a republican, and I find the “real” TEA party to be exactly just that as well. Though the corporate owned and controlled mainstream media mass mind manipulation machine would rather project to the average ignorant that the TEA party is made up of republican hate mongering suspect homegrown terrorist’s. And so the average ignorant buys into that projected belief. When the fact is that the majority of TEA party patriots are standing up for traditional American values and their constitutionally guaranteed liberty, and do not care to either suck off of the federal nanny state teat, nor continue to fund it for those who do.

    Both of the “projected” major political parties share the blame for the expected forms of “relief” being granted by a government that in reality has never produced a damned thing…ever. They rob from those who “have” due to their efforts and hard work within the same corrupt system that plays out this Robin Hood type scenario to garner votes to continue the saga while working with the special interests and corporations that have taken over control of the real move to enslave the American people under a dictate by the New World Order global elite few who have managed to con us into funding our own demise. Those on the receiving end of the government teat believe that the government provides for them, and have grown accustomed to the benefits of laying around on their arss and getting paid for it, and/or have come to expect these benefits as if it is somehow “owed” to them for some odd reason or another. Not to say that there isn’t room for private acts of charity in the world. That all fine and dandy, when one person that may hold abundant wealth can donate to a particular charity by choice of their own. But when the American people are “expected” to pay taxes that then fund not only the lives of illegal immigrants that flood our job markets when there are no jobs, but also other whole countries that have run their economic ship aground, we got problems.

    TEA party stands for Taxed Enough Already. And that has been the case for a good many years now. Yes the sleeping giant has awakened…and it is about time. I say skip the TEA. Pour some coffee down that giants throat. It’s time to take our republic back.

    All this talk about democracy…democracy. We have to spread democracy. Well I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of American, and to the REPUBLIC for which it stands. And I challenge anybody to even find the word democracy anywhere in the Bill Of Rights, or the Constitution. Good luck with that one.


  13. Chris says:

    “Later in another fleeting conversation she expressed interest in and sympathy for the Tea Party.”

    So your family member isn’t even a self-identified Tea Partier, and yet you choose her to illustrate Tea Party attitudes. Okay.

    I was on board with the original tea party for Ron Paul, but for the past year they have been co-opted by the likes of Glen Beck and Sarah Palin, so I wouldn’t be caught dead at one.

    However, the feeble Garofalo accusation of racism could not miss the point by a longer margin.


  14. Jesse Shaffer says:

    I think Dan brings up an excellent point that the Tea Party has been attracting Democrats, Libertarians, and even a couple of Anarchists.

    When you offer freedom, you unite people. This country is finally recognizing that the principles of our founding were correct, but we never fully honored the promise of this nation–that the individual is the ultimate minority. If you protect the individual, you protect the entire society.

    Progressives are at their heart collectivists, and racism is only an extreme form of collectivism. The debate in this country that is going on, whether Jack Metzgar and Helen realize it or not, is one between two opposing philosophies.

    Are we to have a minimal Constitutional government that respects the unalienable rights of all citizens or are we to have an all-intrusive nanny-state leviathan that directs our lives from womb to tomb as if we were some sort of cattle?

    Perhaps the reason people are so uncomfortable with President Obama is because he represents the leviathan option. These people perhaps haven’t studied the philosophical differences behind Thomas Jefferson’s America and Barack Obama’s America enough to express why they are opposed to Obama’s America–but they just know it in their gut to be antithetical to the values that they hold dear.

    I would also like to add that if those in the Progressive movement try to pin a racist tail on a limited government donkey, they do so at their own peril. This movement to restore the Republic is growing like a wild-fire from coast to coast. You’ll only alienate those in your own camp if you continue you spout such falsehoods.


  15. Mary Jane Moore-Wright says:

    This bulletin “Tea-partying while White” seems to wreak RACISM…hello!!!!

    In bulletins, I hear overtones of hatred towards Whites. Very sad to see indeed. Many non-whites who writes articles such as this exude anger because of what seems to be envy, such as jealous of the guy next door syndrome. I AM INTERESTED TO LEARN THIS AUTHOR’S POSITION ON THE SUBJECT OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION!!!! Hmmm, I wonder that it may be. DUH!!!! Welcome to America, freedom of speech is always welcome and it works both ways. Just know that freedom of speech is for everyone.


  16. Dan says:

    This is very easy. The majority of the tea partiers are people who have finally reconized that both the democratic and republican party are the same. They are both funded by the same large corporations. Both parties pass laws in favior of corporations. NOT the people of the land. They take our money in the form of taxes to benifit there corporations. It’s simple. More and more people are starting to see this big lie. And they are choseing to be tea partiers. Demicans or Republicrats. It’s the same. Use your eyes to see what is infront of you. Then accept it. And then use your mind to understand it. Like I said, it’s simple………


  17. Jesse Shaffer says:

    I find the amount of logical fallacies, race-baiting, and statistical hullabaloo in this short rant to be astounding. Of course the racists are going to jump on board with the Tea Party just by virtue of the fact that both groups oppose Obama, but the similarities between the groups end here.

    The current Tea Party movement (the one that got co-opted by the GOP) may seem to the untrained eye to be a mass of Republican voters, but this is not the case. The roots of the Tea Party go back to the Ron Paul movement in December of 2007 when it was decided that a massive amount of money would be raised for Dr. Paul on the 234th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.

    This movement was fighting the mainstream Republican Party more than anything at the time, and raised over 6 million dollars in one day–an enormous sum for a Presidential primary–entirely at the grassroots level. This was out of dissatisfaction with the Republican establishment (especially big-government Republicans like George W. Bush and John McCain).

    From our point of view, there has been a seemless transition between the Bush -> Obama regimes. In fact, the only noticable difference between them is the color of their skin, which has no bearing on the intellectual under-pinnings of this movement.

    At its core, the Tea Party movement is about reducing the size and scope of an ever-increasingly authoritarian government that invades our lives at every avenue.

    From the unconstitutional drug war, the illegal and immoral pre-emptive wars overseas, the erosion of national sovereignty, bailouts of banks and private corporations, destruction of freedom of speech, the horrors of the PATRIOT ACT, and now a health care bill that is tantamount to a de-facto insurance industry bailout–we draw a line in the sand.

    Both major parties are in on the game, and everybody understands that the game is essentially rigged in their favor. This is the true intellectual basis for the Tea Party movement. Whether a couple of racists are along for the ride is inconsequential. We oppose them too.

    If you want to know what the ideals behind the Tea Party movement are, then simply look to Descartes, Locke, Paine, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. If you want to know who the movement supports, it’s those who follow the Constitution of the United States of America in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.

    Trying to retain our unalienable rights from a criminal two-party government does not make us racist, it makes us patriots.


  18. Will Shetterly says:

    Focusing on race with the Tea Party can be deceptive. According to Gallup, 6% of Tea Partiers are non-Hispanic black–they’re more racially diverse than most churches or Canada.

    As for supporting Obama, those people didn’t support Clinton either–and Obama got a greater percentage of white votes than any Democrat in decades. Whites, as a group, are simply more Republican than other groups. The reason for that is in the title of your blog: they’re disproportionately upper and middle class.

    I find the Tea Party’s sexual makeup at least as interesting as its racial mix: they’re 55% women:



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