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MLK and the Myth of Reverse Racism

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August 27, 2010

Forty-seven years ago tomorrow, 200,000-plus people marched on Washington to demand full access to the benefits of citizenship for black Americans and an end to segregation. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

The poster that advertised the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom read: “Millions of citizens, black and white, are unemployed…As long as black workers are disenfranchised, ill-housed, denied education and economically depressed, the fight of white workers for a decent life will fail.” March organizers understood that the floor had to be raised for all Americans. They also understood that people of color bore the brunt of economic hardship.

They still do, and the current economic crisis has had a particularly brutal impact on communities of color. Black and Latino workers are unemployed at significantly higher rates than white workers. Black and Latino homeowners, who received almost half of all subprime loans, are projected to lose a quarter trillion dollars in home equity as a result of the foreclosure crisis. Experts believe that half of all African-American children will live in poverty before employment rates improve.

Against this backdrop, it is hard to believe that, as James Webb (the Democratic Senator from Virginia) recently opined in the Wall Street Journal, “a plethora of government-enforced diversity policies have marginalized many white workers” and “damaged racial harmony.”

Webb is not the first to take aim at affirmative action by accessing civil rights-style language to raise the specter of reverse discrimination. California lobbyist Ward Connerly called his 2008 anti-affirmative action crusade “Super Tuesday for Civil Rights,” and consistently uses misleading faux-equality rhetoric to conceal the true intent of his initiatives.

So when Webb writes that “Nondiscrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white,” he, like Connerly invokes American values of fairness and equality not to support equal opportunity policies that break down the present-day inequities faced by people of color, but to justify their elimination.

As you’ve probably heard by now, Fox News commentator Glenn Beck — who famously called Barack Obama a racist — is organizing a rally at the Lincoln Memorial this Saturday, the anniversary of the March on Washington.

Beck claims he didn’t realize the coincidence, but he did say that “Blacks don’t own Martin Luther King…Too many have…purposely distorted Martin Luther King’s ideas of judge a man by the content of his character.” He also said, on a separate occasion, that “We will reclaim the civil rights moment. We will take that movement because we were the people who did it in the first place.”

What better mark of privilege than the ability to effortlessly co-opt the posture of the oppressed?

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