Reporter Kate Zernike, whose book on the Tea Party movement,"Boiling Mad," is due out next month, led off Saturday's National section by suggesting racism on the part of Fox News host Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial later that day.
Beck has outraged the left with the timing of the rally, the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's March on Washington and the "I Have a Dream" speech.
Although Zernike and others in the media use "Tea Party faithful" as shorthand to mark the rally, the actual gathering on Saturday turned out to be far more religious than political, with Zernike herself likening it to a "large church picnic" in her Sunday coverage.
But Zernike led her Saturday preview of the rally, "Where Dr. King Once Stood, Tea Party Claims His Mantle," with accusations of racism:
It seems the ultimate thumb in the eye: that Glenn Beck would summon the Tea Party faithful to a rally on the anniversary of the March on Washington, and address them from the very place where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech 47 years ago. After all, the Tea Party and its critics have been facing off for months over accusations of racism.
But many of the busloads of Tea Party activists expected in Washington this weekend do not see any irony or offense. In fact, they have come to see the Tea Party as the aggrieved - its loosely affiliated members unfairly characterized, even persecuted, as extremists.
Those same "accusations of racism" foisted on the Tea Party movement by hostile reporters like Zernike. (The rally itself turned out to be a largely apolitical celebration of patriotism and religion.)
Zernike has a very sensitive ear for linking conservatism and racism, notoriously finding racial undertones where they don't exist, as when she accused conservative speaker Jason Mattera of using a "Chris Rock voice" in a February 18 post for the Times' political blog, "CPAC Speaker Bashes Obama, in Racial Tones." Mattera was in fact speaking in his usual thick Brooklynese.
Zernike has long employed unsubstantiated racial accusations to boost her hostile coverage of the movement. On Saturday she made some stunning guilt-by-association leaps, one being that opposition to the minimum wage makes you racially suspect.
In the Tea Party's talk of states' rights, critics say they hear an echo of slavery, Jim Crow and George Wallace. Tea Party activists call that ridiculous: they do not want to take the country back to the discrimination of the past, they say, they just want the states to be able to block the federal mandate on health insurance.
Still, the government programs that many Tea Party supporters call unconstitutional are the ones that have helped many black people emerge from poverty and discrimination. It is not just that Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for Senate in Kentucky, said that he disagreed on principle with the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that required business owners to serve blacks. It is that many Tea Party activists believe that laws establishing a minimum wage or the federal safety net are an improper expansion of federal power.
Critics rightly note that Dr. King spoke over and over of the need for this country to acknowledge its "debt to the poor," calling for an "economic bill of rights" that would "guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work." In Mr. Beck's taxonomy, this would make him a Marxist.
Even if Tea Party members are right that any racist signs are those of mischief-makers, even if Glenn Beck had chosen any other Saturday to hold his rally, it would be hard to quiet the argument about the Tea Party and race.
Leaving aside the questionable assumption that minimum wage laws actually benefit blacks, the idea of King as a leftist or Marxist is hardly a new or controversial idea.
King was an admirer of Marx, as reported on page 537 of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by David Garrow, "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference." Garrow encapsulated King's discussions during a retreat with his SCLC staff: "Actually, he went on, there was much to admire about Karl Marx, who had 'a great passion for social justice" but had fallen afoul of the theoretical errors of materialism."
Note that Zernike concluded the "argument about the Tea Party and race" wasn't going away, which is certainly true if reporters like Zernike keep fanning the flames.
In addition, liberal columnists Charles Blow and Bob Herbert both went after Beck on Saturday. Blow's "Glenn Beck's Nightmare" was more in sorrow: "Beck wants to swaddle his movement in the cloth of the civil rights movement, a cloth soaked in the blood and tears of the innocent and oppressed, a cloth his divisiveness and self-aggrandizing threatens to defile."
On the same page, Herbert's criticism came more in anger: "Beck is a provocateur who likes to play with matches in the tinderbox of racial and ethnic confrontation. He seems oblivious to the real danger of his execrable behavior."
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