There is little to be said that has not been said already about Glenn Beck’s Tea Party rally, to take place Saturday in Washington at the spot where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on its 47th anniversary. Tens of thousands will flock there from the parts of the country that received the most government dollars to rage against big government. Sarah Palin is headlining, and the National Rifle Association will make a strong showing. “We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and, dammit, we will reclaim the civil rights moment,” said Beck in May (quoted in this CNN piece by Will Bunch). “We will take that movement — because we were the people who did it in the first place.” The civil rights movement, it seems, has been coopted by people like African Americans, gay people, and women. They’ve had their turn.
Of course, this so-called reclaiming, in addition to being a publicity stunt that will keep Beck and Palin in the spotlight, is a transparently dishonest manipulation of the civil rights movement’s goals and accomplishments, the very effort to contain and coopt the movement that Jacquelyn Hall warned us about in her 2005 article, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past” (the article which inspired this scholarly collaboration). As Hall wrote, so-called “color blind conservatives” thought it was up to them to restore the original purpose of civil rights laws, which was to prevent isolated acts of wrongdoing against individuals”–in Beck’s case aggrieved whites–“rather than, as many civil rights activists and legal experts claim, to redress present, institutionalized manifestations of historical injustices against blacks as a group.”
Beck’s basic civil rights narrative seems to run like this: There were instances of racism in the past. We regret them, but they’re over, and today’s efforts at addressing questions of racism and poverty amount to “reparations” paid to minorities by whites innocent of personal wrong doing. The success of this narrative lies not only in the profound ignorance of its believers and the venal agenda of its peddlers; not only in racial antipathies but also in the schism between understandings of economic justice and racial justice. As long as lower-class whites feel angry and powerless and are able to blame black people rather than, say, the very rich (for example, Glenn Beck, Inc., made $32 million last year), it will never be necessary to begin the kind of economic restructuring that Martin Luther King hoped would alleviate the poverty of working class blacks, whites, Latinos, and others. As long as lower-class whites privilege their rights as individuals (say to own a machine gun) over their rights as a group (to unionize, or to receive fair pay for their labor), the pressure for economic restructuring only simmers, and never boils over.
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