Say, what?

I’ve never been a fan of Glenn Beck but i was frankly gobsmacked to learn from columnist Leonard Pitt this week that Beck has proclaimed his Washington rally will “‘reclaim’ the civil rights movement. It has been so distorted and so turned upside down. … We are on the right side of history. We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and damn it, we will reclaim the civil rights moment. We will take that movement, because we were the people that did it in the first place!”
Ummm, no. As Pitts points out, these are not the people who went on Freedom Rides, marched in Selma, registered blacks to vote, sat at segregated lunch counters.
But it does fit with a running theme on the right wing that conservative white people are the ones who are oppressed. Their rights are being denied. Black people have seized power and taken theirs. So by fighting back against “race hustlers” (generally anyone who raises the subject and isn’t white) and by accusing people such as Shirley Sherrod or Barack Obama of being the real racists, they’re carrying on Martin Luther King’s dream of a colorblind America.
Except, as others have pointed out in the past, that simplifies and obscures what King was fighting for. The civil-rights movement wasn’t some clean and calm call of a “colorblind America”–it was a crusade to end systematic discrimination against American blacks. It was African Americans and other minorities who were on the receiving end of injustice: Lynching, denial of voting rights, murder and Jim Crow.
Yes, ultimately we’ll need to have an America where we can be colorblind but pretending or ignoring that it was specifically the white majority’s oppression of the black minority that fueled the movements is an obscene distortion.
Partly, I imagine, it’s just politics, an attempt to defang racial criticism of the right wing.
Partly, I imagine, it’s a way to make participants feel noble: If they’re objecting to affirmative action or outraged by any suggestion that black Americans still get a raw deal, hey, it’s just because they’re colorblind and support individual freedom.
Partly it’s because some of them genuinely do imagine they’re oppressed. Conservatives are good at that; look at Dr. Laura bemoaning how her First Amendment rights were violated because she was (gasp!) criticized (because criticizing her is no different from sending storm troopers into the radio booth). Or an acquaintance who told me a couple of years ago that Christians were as persecuted in America today as Jews in 1930s Germany. I suspect some conservatives enjoy the idea: Imagining yourself as persecuted gives you an aura of martyrdom with none of the drawbacks like, you know, actually being martyred.
For others, the sense of oppression is less overt and more situational, summed up by Pat Buchanan’s claim that the white working class is angry because this country used to belong to them and now it’s been taken away.
That’s nonsense, of course. To the extent it belonged to whites more than anyone else, it was because whites preserved their ownership with violence. But I’ve long thought that Buchanan’s view is very much part of the current political landscape. When I was born, being a white, straight, Christian male gave you an automatic edge over everyone who wasn’t, and society actually approved that edge. That’s recent enough for many of us to remember it or to have heard about it.
The edge is still there, of course, but it’s much reduced from what it once was. And worse, society no longer accepts the edge as a good thing. That’s a good thing by most standards, but not by every standard. For some people, I suspect, the awareness that “well all religions/genders/races are equal, of course, but some are just more equal than others” is no longer a majority attitude feels like the privileges that came with whiteness or maleness are being taken away. Therefore, we’re in a zero-sum game: If blacks gain, whites must be losing.
I don’t think everyone who feels this way is a racist. Some people definitely do long for the days of Jim Crow (or slavery, for that matter) but for others I think it may be just a general discomfort, a sense that, as Buchanan suggests, they’ve been cheated out of what rightfully belongs to them (even though it didn’t).
Being told they’re on the side of civil rights and equality may be very comforting.


Filed under Politics

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