by NCLR Federal Policy Attorney Maya Rupert, Esq.
If the goal of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, held in the same place and on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, was irony, Beck should be proud.
While the rally was billed as nonpolitical, it was clearly the rhetoric of the Tea Party that was being espoused by Beck, Sarah Palin, and King’s niece, Alveda King, whose role, as best I can tell, was to be Black and a relative of King so that the hijacking of his legacy felt less like highway robbery and more like shoplifting. The theme: Government intervention is not the answer but the problem, and identity is irrelevant.
After the rally, Beck went on Fox News Sunday and sounded like a Bizarro King extolling the virtue of a colorblind society where “race should not be a part of politics” and no government action to address discrimination is needed.
But the story of America has always been a story about identity. Religious identity and the right to worship free of persecution. Political identity and the right to fair representation in government. Basic human identity and the right to live as a free person—owned by, and beholden to, no one. And each of those rights had to be etched into the Constitution, perhaps the biggest form of government intervention, in order to be guaranteed.
When King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 47 years ago, it was undeniably a rally about racial identity. He invoked images of black children and white children joining hands, because their racial differences were to be celebrated, not ignored. And that speech was a catalyst for passing the Civil Rights Act—yes, more federal legislation, which prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations. Beck’s attempt to recast it as a movement for colorblind politics and small government is baffling at best and ignominious at worst.
However, in a strange way, it is also fitting because it is simply the latest in a long line of attempts to co-opt the language and narrative of the civil rights movement, scrub it of its focus on minority identity, and claim it for a movement of the majority intent on reinforcing the status quo.
Beck explained that in his mind, civil rights is about giving everyone “equal justice; an equal shot.” But such equality does not happen without laws that prohibit judging people on something besides the content of their character. And that is true for all minority groups fighting for equality.
As we continue to wait on Congress to act on the long overdue Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), crucial legislation that will give lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) employees basic rights to be free from workplace discrimination, it is frightening to hear people question the importance of government action in prohibiting discrimination. As the law currently stands, people in this country run the risk of being fired simply for being who they are. Right now, in 29 states people can be fired because of their sexual orientation, and in 38 states, because of their gender identity. ENDA would provide critical federal protection for LGBT people to be free from discrimination at work.
According to a 2007 Gallup poll, 89% of people believe LGBT employees deserve equal treatment at work. Despite that fact, a survey from the same year reflected that 43% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people had reported harassment at work. And a more recent study from 2010 reflects that 97% of transgender workers have experienced harassment at work. That disparity—the difference between how we feel about discrimination and how often it still happens—is what Beck and his supporters naively ignore when they talk about equality but asks us to ignore identity and the role of government in achieving it. If equality is the goal, the answer has to be an increased understanding of identity politics, and more government action, not less.
King once famously said: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.” Beck and his followers are free to disagree with this very simple point, but not while claiming entitlement to King’s legacy while they do it.