- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

The most telling comment on the Reparations Rally in Washington the other day may have been made in passing. "While the rally was enthusiastic," one account noted, "it in no way could compete with the throngs that crowded the National Mall during the 1963 march on Washington led by Martin Luther King."
It wasn't just the difference in time. Or in leadership. Or in theme. It wasn't even the difference in spirit, which was profound. Just as asking for money is profoundly different from demanding equality.
The difference has to do with history and how we approach it. How many times can the March on Washington be replayed in a different time without squeezing all the life out of it, and the last shred of relevance?
Because this wasn't so much a repeat of the March on Washington but a parody of it. History was being treated not as a grand, ennobling, culminating saga that leads to universal conciliation, a march from slavery unto freedom, but as a sort of ledger of rights and wrongs, assets and liabilities, that needs to be balanced so We are compensated and They are penalized.
This is history used as a bludgeon instead of a light. Once you get into that kind of ethnic accounting who owes whom for what since the beginning of time there's no end to it.
No wonder there was none of the eloquence, none of the simplicity, and, most absent of all, none of the dignity that marked that great outpouring before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
The difference is emblematic of what has happened to the American civil rights movement. Once it was a unifying force. Now it has become another example of special pleading. It was hard to imagine anyone at this rally dreaming of the day, to quote Martin Luther King, when we would judge others not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Instead, color was being used as a kind of currency, an entitlement to some pie-in-the-sky benefit. The message of the original March on Washington was being reversed, or at least color-coded. The effect was that of a low comedy as the succession of speakers spoke ever more loudly and made ever less sense.
Karl Marx got one thing right: History happens twice, first as tragedy and the second time as farce. Not even those old race hustlers, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, showed up this time. There comes a point when even the vultures recognize there is no more meat on these pecked-over bones.
It was embarrassing to watch. It makes me uncomfortable even now to write about it. The whole thing brought back the uneasy feeling I had as a child when somebody would give us tickets to the annual minstrel show at the municipal auditorium. We knew we were supposed to enjoy it, and we did enjoy what we could the music and the costumes and the night out. But even then I knew without thinking it through that there was something not right about it something unnatural, demeaning.
The show was demeaning to the white actors and the black stereotypes they portrayed, but mainly to those of us watching. For it was our attention that lent the whole spectacle a kind of respectability. As if it made sense, or even good nonsense. Yet we stayed to the end, only vaguely aware that we were the ones who were being insulted, lowered, made coarse.
I had the same sensation watching this sad succession of speakers and showmen. As if my watching it made me an accomplice. Just as my writing about it does now. It's like staring at somebody else's bad taste.
Listening to the speeches on television, I was embarrassed for any black folks watching. The unending cry for dependence. The lack of self-respect. The presumption of it to beg in the name of others long gone and use their suffering to justify a subsidy for oneself. Or maybe for one's favorite bureaucracy, foundation or wherever all this reparations money would go. (The politicians will be happy to decide, and then take credit for it.)
I think I know how my black friends must feel when this kind of show makes the news. It's the way I feel when some Jewish hustler, embezzler or corporate high-roller makes the headlines and shames the rest of us. There's even a Yiddish phrase for it: "a shandah far die goyim." A scandal in the eyes of the world, the nations, the gentiles. That's what this reparations rally in Washington was: a scandal in the eyes of the white folks. But mainly, and most painfully, I suspect, in the discerning eyes of black ones.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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