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Commentary: Glenn Beck's buffet-style civil rights

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 31, 2010 - We've all heard about the controversy of Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally, which took place on the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech." The analysis has largely been stuck on the question of whether Beck should or should not have held his rally on the landmark date. In my opinion, what is most egregious is Beck's plan to "reclaim civil rights" buffet-style. In addition, I find the larger dynamics of the rally, as the beginning of a movement, worth questioning considering that Beck paints himself as an entertainer (see show's voiceover and apocalyptic jingle).

I wholeheartedly agree that no person or identity group owns civil rights. In fact, my recent work  stems from a strong belief that we all must be a part of the solution. Whites absolutely play a role in civil rights, so in that sense, Beck is on track. However, to attempt to "reclaim" when in reality he is "dismissing" is false advertising.

As a point of reference, let's consider gender, because it seems easier for us to wrap our minds around sexism.

If women alone could make dollar for dollar what men make rather than only .80 per each dollar,  I have no doubt they would make that change happen. If not immediately after we were no longer considered property and given the right to vote, surely we would have taken care of that disparity. However, the reality is that we need men - men who acknowledge that sexism happens and disagree - to join us in the fight for equal pay. In that way, sexism isn't just a woman thing, it's a civil rights thing.

So, rather than acknowledge the present day racial disparities and link his cause to those trends, Beck chose to hold the mantle of colorblindness and forge ahead with his own ideas. In that way, Beck's rally failed to authentically engage its own assertion of "reclaiming civil rights," because it dismissed the importance of race - an important aspect of civil rights given the historic date and our nation's narrative.

If present day racial disparities had been acknowledged, it would have allowed his point to be heard by a wider audience. Yet, Beck went out of his way to minimize the importance of race. He made reference only to the part of Dr. King's dream that referred to being judged by the content of character , and also went so far as to label race a "negative."

Dr. Alveda King , niece of Dr. King, did make a point to acknowledge the legacy of inequalities, asserting her dream that "White privilege will be become human privilege." However, she continued in her remarks to raise questions about reproductive and marriage rights.

It was as if other civil rights were dismissed in lieu of focusing the spotlight on Beck's chosen agenda. So, no, I don't believe Beck is reclaiming civil rights. I believe he is suggesting that a part of his identity that he holds dear, religion, is what we should all consider and cosign. Because religion is central to his identity and how he sees the world, he contends that attending to religious dynamics will drive our decision-making and actions in a positive way. I would venture to guess that he believes that his worldview helps him see things in ways that others might not, and that there is value to that perspective. He even claims to have evidence, from our forefathers in fact. I can respect that. That's the lens through which he sees this world.

My frustration is that I see a glaring contradiction in the way Beck invalidates central parts of other people's identity as unimportant yet argue that his lens is the proper one we should pay attention to. Regardless of my alignment with his beliefs, that stance is disingenuous and weak. It is certainly not the embodiment of the reclamation of civil rights. Perhaps that phrase was code to garner the support of those claiming racial backlash . Whatever the motivation, Beck missed the mark by reifying his own concerns while being dismissive of others.

The reality is that, as much as we would like to dream differently, race continues to shape opportunity in our society, and we all have a role to play in rectifying that fact. As Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said, "To get beyond racism, we must first take account of race."

If we continue to refuse to recognize how race has influenced us individually, culturally and institutionally, we don't get to jump ahead to the second part of King's dream statement. We cannot claim to judge based on the content of character when we have scientific evidence that on average we continue to base decisions on the color of skin. And we most certainly cannot pick and choose which civil rights to uphold as if we're in line at the latest buffet.

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.