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The Racial Politics of Glenn Beck's March on Washington

The TV commentator says that he will "reclaim the civil-rights movement" from progressives who have hijacked it for their own agenda. Instead, he distorts and disrespects it.


Fox News host Glenn Beck speaks to the National Rifle Association. (Chris Keane / Reuters-Landov)

By now the political cycle of racial accusation and counter-accusation has become so predictable you could set your watch to it:

Stage 1: A Republican politician, conservative leader or talking head makes an offensive remark. See: Trent Lott, Mark Williams, Rush Limbaugh (repeatedly), Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

Stage 2: African-Americans and liberals highlight the remarks and explain why they are offensive.

Stage 3: The politician or talking head apologizes and/or defends himself or herself. Sometimes he or she goes on to resign.

Stage 4: Conservatives are outraged that the humorless PC police have taken down one of their leaders over something as insignificant as praising segregation or using a racial epithet. They fulminate, claiming that civil-rights groups such as the NAACP and the media are more credulous about accusations of racism toward conservatives than liberals.

As the recent episode with black USDA official Shirley Sherrod being railroaded by the NAACP and the media after a misleadingly edited video of her remarks was posted by conservative provocateur Andrew Breitbart demonstrates, African-American political figures are under just as intense a microscope when it comes to potentially offensive remarks. But it does seem that conservatives are constantly being accused of racial insensitivity and the tiresome cycle begins anew. Why is that?

Perhaps it has something to do with so many conservatives frequently behaving insensitively. Consider Glenn Beck's so-called Restoring Honor Rally, for which he just so happens to have booked the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for Saturday, the 47th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Civil-rights organizations typically commemorate the massive civil- rights demonstration and Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech there on that date.

Beck says the event will "reclaim the civil-rights movement," from progressives who have hijacked it for their redistributive agenda. The original March on Washington, like the civil-rights movement more generally, saw economic justice (hence "jobs") as inextricable from legal equality. It was an inherently liberal cause. Beck can disagree, and say that the two goals are separable, as indeed he does.

But to claim, as he recently has, that economic justice was not a concern of the civil-rights movement, and that liberal political leaders who are popular among African-Americans are "perverting" the cause, is both demonstrably false and deeply disrespectful to the African-American community. Beck says he and his overwhelmingly white followers "are the inheritors and protectors of the civil- rights movement." This is as direct a provocation to civil-rights activists as it would be to conservatives if Keith Olbermann said that he and his viewers were the inheritors and protectors of Ronald Reagan's legacy. 

Beck's rally will feature Sarah Palin as a speaker. Yes, that's the same Sarah Palin who just last week claimed Dr. Laura was being “shackled” for her profligate use of the N-word on air and then urged Dr. Laura to "reload." (Whether Palin was referring to a gun or a firehose is unclear.)

Civil-rights leaders are pushing back by holding their own competing rallies elsewhere in Washington. Meanwhile one of Beck's fellow inheritors of the civil-rights movement, Tea Party organizer and blogger Andrew Ian Dodge, helpfully posted a visitors' guide to D.C. for his cohort. The guide warns against venturing into most of Washington outside of a small strip of downtown and fancy areas to its north and west. The areas that are proscribed are predominantly black, while the areas that are deemed safe are among the few mostly white neighborhoods in Washington.

Other helpful advice: "Most taxi drivers and many waiters/waitresses (especially in local coffee shops like the Bread and Chocolate chain) are immigrants, frequently from east Africa or Arab countries. As a rule, African immigrants do not like for you to assume they are African-Americans." Remarkably enough, some African-American commentators found the guide offensive.

So, to recap: Tea Party activists, who surveys suggest are disproportionately white and more likely to hold negative views toward African-Americans, have pushed civil rights off the site of a great moment for African-Americans on its anniversary—which also happens to be the day before the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the government's consequent abandonment of New Orleans' mostly African-American poor residents—to cheer for Palin and Beck as they inveigh against economic justice and activist government.

The next time a conservative makes a racially inflammatory remark, perhaps he shouldn't wonder why he doesn't get the benefit of the doubt.

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