I can only imagine that someone with no intimate knowledge of the humiliation of Jim Crow -- of having to go to the back door of a restaurant or simply being refused service because of the color of one's skin -- would find the recent comments of Rand Paul compelling.
Some will argue, as many have, that Paul's comments about Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act were consistent with his libertarian principles. His idea of freedom requires that he reject any governmental intrusion on the private lives of American citizens. So he, like others, finds racism repulsive, would march, if given the chance, beside Martin Luther King, Jr. against state-sanctioned segregation, but vehemently opposes any governmental effort to restrict the bigoted ugliness of those so thoroughly committed to white supremacy: it is their first amendment right, after all. Paul is content to protest government-sanctioned racism, but he fails to see government's role in ridding the nation of racism.
These sorts of white folk unsettle me. They seem to be blind to the suffering of others. They seem, at least to me, to be terribly selfish -- and dare to call that selfishness freedom, or to justify their own ugliness by an appeal to some abstract principle of states' rights. In the interim, those who are not considered "one of us" are left to suffer the ire and violence of bigots.
In short, Paul's principles offer little comfort to those bearing the brunt of this nation's racist past and present. In fact, they do just the opposite. They alert us, or at least me, to be ever mindful of the ugliness that always seems to linger beneath the surfaces of our democratic form of life -- an ugliness based in a troublesome conception of whiteness.
Some white folk are not too happy about the current direction of our nation. They want to take back "their" government. They don guns in public. They hurl invective at their opponents. They pass draconian immigration legislation. They ban ethnic studies in school districts. They insist on a view of the United States that mirrors their own self-conception: white and deeply conservative.
What is required of us when confronting such voices is a loud renunciation: we must reject the view of whiteness this approach to politics presupposes. And we do so in the name of democratic principles that are consistent with our commitment to justice.
Freedom-talk without justice-talk is empty and, potentially, dangerous. Paul and those like him would do well to remember this. Too many Americans, of all colors, have engaged in struggles to achieve our country in light of their view of "justice as a larger loyalty." That commitment has led many Americans to risk their lives to rid us of this insidious notion that ours is a "white" nation.
When I was relatively young, my parents moved us to a different neighborhood in our small town in Mississippi. I was playing with my new friend. He was white. Our Tonka trucks were yellow. His dad yelled, "Leave that nigger alone and get in this house." He abruptly stopped, picked up his truck, whispered goodbye, and left. I cried.
My hope and prayer is that the legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, of government in the service of good, has allowed me to flourish and has also given room to that gentle whisper -- to that hushed act of solidarity -- to blossom as a profound commitment to justice and freedom for all.