Yep, you read that right. Rand Paul went there. Here's how he did it: "I find it ironic that the first African-American president has without compunction allowed this vast exercise of raw power by the N.S.A. ... Certainly J. Edgar Hoover's illegal spying on Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement should give us all pause." In an interview prior to giving this speech on privacy, Sen. Paul was even more direct in telling the president what he, as a black man, ought to be doing:
The first African-American president ought to be a little more conscious of the fact of what has happened with the abuses of domestic spying... Martin Luther King was spied upon, civil rights leaders were spied upon, Muhammad Ali was spied upon.
Overall, Paul's remarks at Berkeley represented a strong and thoughtful criticism of the NSA's domestic surveillance operations, which are unquestionably out of control. Furthermore, the Obama administration specifically deserves to be not only criticized but held accountable for what has gone on under its watch. I have no problem with Sen. Paul or anyone else doing so. Having said that, Rand Paul crossed a line.
Look at what Paul did here. Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, and other civil rights leaders were real black men. They fought the system, 'cause that's what real black men do. They were dangerous, dangerous enough that The Man himself -- in the form of J. Edgar Hoover -- had to break the law to spy on them (imagine the theme from Shaft playing as you read this). Clearly, Paul is saying that Hoover's spying was wrong, he's identifying with King and Ali, not Hoover. But what Paul's also saying is that President Barack Obama, well, he's Hoover. He's certainly more Hoover than he is King or Ali. A real black man -- Paul clearly says, even if he didn't use those exact words -- should have known better, or, in the words Paul did use, a real black man should have been "a little more conscious." Because Rand Paul knows what it means to be a real, "conscious" black man.
Almost as soon as he emerged on the national stage in 2004 with his message of cross-racial American unity, some have questioned whether Barack Obama is actually "black enough." Most of the time, the people asking that question have been black. But Rand Paul fancies himself a truth-teller, someone who can talk about race and talk to black people in a way that less brave white politicians aren't willing to do. He's scoring points with the media (the headline of a CNN.com news article -- not an opinion piece -- about the NSA speech characterized Paul as a "rising star") as someone who will go before audiences most conservatives avoid, and will say things others won't say. In reality, however, he's just another whitesplainer.
"Whitesplaining" is a term of relatively recent origin. It can too easily be overused, employed by some to discourage white people from talking about certain topics rather than actually engaging with the content of what they are saying. No one, simply by dint of their race, should feel that they have nothing of value to say on a topic of such importance as racism in America. However, whitesplaining is supposed to be used to call out a white person for telling black people how they should feel or act, or how they should see a certain situation (i.e., "is it racist or not"), or condescendingly lecturing black people about black life in America. Rand Paul has here engaged in a textbook definition of whitesplaining. And it's not even the first time, as the students at Howard University (and anyone who heard his remarks there) can attest.
Now, Barack Obama has spoken on countless occasions about the special responsibility he feels as a black president to address issues that disproportionately affect African-Americans. He's also repeatedly said that he is the president of all Americans, and he takes his positions based on what he believes is best for the country as a whole. On the matter of the NSA, I'm not convinced that the black community today (as opposed to, say, during the years of Martin Luther King or the Black Panthers) is affected more by dangerously excessive domestic surveillance than any other community, but Rand Paul isn't seriously making that argument. He's just using Obama's blackness for his own political gain.
Let's turn Paul's thinking around on him. Born in Pennsylvania, Rand moved to Texas at age five and stayed there through college (at Baylor), and since then has continued to live exclusively in the South (North Carolina for medical school and residency at Duke, and Kentucky for his medical practice). If Barack Obama -- due his being of the same race as those black people persecuted for centuries -- should feel a special responsibility, then I would suggest that Rand Paul, as a Southern white male who shares the racial and regional background of the worst of those doing the persecution, should also feel some special responsibilities to protect the civil rights of the persecuted.
Yet, Rand Paul has a long history of criticizing and even opposing major elements of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Now, to Paul's credit, he has also done some very good things more recently, like join the push to allow ex-felons to regain the right to vote. Rand Paul is not Rush Limbaugh, to be sure. But, to use one of my favorite phrases, that's an awfully low bar to clear.
If Rand Paul wants to criticize President Obama on the NSA and domestic surveillance, he should have at it. There's plenty to criticize, and Paul isn't alone. But there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. Martin Luther King, Barack Obama and Muhammad Ali are all black men who fought and struggled to make this country a better place. Do any of you think that Rand Paul, were he an adult in 1964, would have been standing with Martin Luther King instead of with Barry Goldwater, who ran for president in that year on a platform that opposed the Civil Rights Act? Rand Paul's contemporary arguments against that law parrot those of Goldwater, so we know exactly where and with whom Paul would have stood.
Barack Obama has a lot to answer for when it comes to the NSA. However, the president certainly does not have to answer to Rand Paul when it comes to whether he is black enough.