Shared History

May 22, 2010

I’m going to open this one by sharing some links so you can read up on some of the stuff I’m talking about here.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Rand Paul

Salon on Arizona’s New Ethnic Studies Law

Coates Again, This Time on Texas’ School Board—– Another Article Here

And now, the video from Rand Paul’s appearance on Rachel Maddow’s show:

I really encourage you to read those articles and watch the videos all the way through before continuing.


After the 2008 election some people let themselves believe that the US had entered a sort of post-racial moment; that somehow electing President Obama meant that the US had moved past race, and it would no longer be the elephant in the room. How wrong those people were. These questions are still as awkward as ever, and our discourses still reveal how far we have to go. My summer in Jackson changed the way I thought about matters of racial equality. It went from being something I nodded my head to– yes, racial equality is a good thing– to being something I’m willing to get into arguments about. America has a shameful and glorious history when it comes to race; there are heroes and villains in equal share. (For an example of a more unknown hero, look up Muhammad Ali’s namesake, Cassius Clay.) Recently, these stories– Texas and its changing school curriculum, Arizona and its Hispanic population, Rand Paul and the Civil Rights Act– have illuminated, for me, our continued clumsy relationship with race.


I’ll start with Texas since this is the least explicit case. Most of the coverage of this story has centered around matters of science and economics in the classroom. Intelligent Design is being taught as hard science, and the theory of evolution is getting quotes put around “theory” by people who don’t quite understand what that word means in matters scientific. When being taught economics students are no longer learning about “capitalism” since it has a bad reputation. Instead, they’re learning about “free enterprise” and all the unalloyed good it has brought to the world. Our government is described as “republican” instead of “democratic,” which sounds innocuous enough on its own, but is clearly a dog-whistle.

That’s not what I want to talk about, though. Instead, I want to talk about the way the Texas school board has gone about revamping the way their kids learn history. There are some white folks who feel like our kids get fed nothing but guilt in the school system. They never get to learn about all the great things that have been done in America, only the bad things that white people have done. This misses the obvious fact that instead students are being taught to admire a broad range of role models of all tones of skin. Instead of taking the presence of a more diverse set of role models as a positive, people assume that an absence of white people is a negative. (Seriously. White privilege.) Texas has gone back and changed that.

Efforts by Hispanic board members to include more Latino figures as role models for the state’s large Hispanic population were consistently defeated, prompting one member, Mary Helen Berlanga, to storm out of a meeting late Thursday night, saying, “They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist.”

This really is unthinkable given the mentioned large population of Latinos in the state. I don’t understand how it is that the school board members think it is necessary for their kids to have plenty of white role models, but Latino students shouldn’t get the same privilege. This final quote from the Texas case really gets my blood boiling, though.

While they concede that people like Martin Luther King Jr. deserve a place in history, they argue that they shouldn’t be given credit for advancing the rights of minorities. As Barton put it, “Only majorities can expand political rights in America’s constitutional society.” Ergo, any rights people of color have were handed to them by whites–in his view, mostly white Republican men.

White Republican men of the type that no longer exist in that party. The Republican party likes the brag that it ended slavery and played a key role in passing the Civil Rights Act. And it should. The Republican party was pivotal in those moments in American history. Current party policy is not the heir of that legacy, though. Over the next few decades the Democrats that the Republicans were helping defeat in those landmark bills of the 60s slowly migrated across to aisle, and the moderate Republicans who had been so crucial to the passage of these laws became Democrats or left office to be replaced by more “conservative” legislators. If the GOP wants to honestly claim the legacy of Civil Rights it needs to grapple with itself on these issues.

But that’s not even the most odious thing about that quote. No, what’s worse, it strips minorities of their agency. Rather than admitting the truth that lots of whites in the south were racists this pulls a bit of jiu jitsu and claims that were it not for the (mostly Northern) whites nothing would have changed anyway. It keeps minorities dependent and in a real way still enslaved to whites. Rather than being upset at the injustices their ancestors have suffered at the hands of the majority, minority children are now being told to thank that very same majority for allowing them to exist on equal terms. How magnanimous.

That this is what Texas children will be learning for the next ten years makes me unbelievably angry.


Moving on to Arizona, much has already been said about the immigration law that the state has signed. I understand that in border states like Arizona illegal immigration is a real issue that needs to be addressed, but the law that the state legislature passed is the best argument I’ve seen in a long time against State’s Rights. The American legal system is predicated on the notion that a person is innocent until they are proven guilty. The reason we do this is because we have decided that it is better to let a criminal go free than to imprison an innocent person.

This legislation gets the equation precisely wrong, and worst of all, it gets it wrong in a racist way. Even with the “fixes” signed hastily into law after the backlash began to hit, this law is monumentally wrongheaded. No white person is going to fear being asked for their papers in Arizona if they’re pulled over for a routine traffic violation. Not so for anyone with a skin shade darker than someone off Jersey Shore. But it gets even worse when we talk about the changes to Arizona’s Ethnic Studies classes. The law says that schools cannot teach classes that “promote hate,” which is so ill-defined as to be unenforceable. But that’s just the point. The enforcement of this law is a total judgement call, which will have a chilling effect on any administrator or teacher wanting to teach an ethnic studies type of course. Again, given the make-up of the Arizona legislature there really is no way to convince me that this wasn’t white people feeling uncomfortable that their ancestors were being criticized.

That’s depressing. People don’t have some God-given right to never hear their predecessors’ sins.


Finally… Rand Paul. I’m going to open this with a quote from one of Ta-Nehisi’s commenters. (These folks are almost as good as Coates himself is.)

…And, of course, the affluent ophthalmologist is on record opposing any cuts to Medicare reimbursement rates for physicians.

Still, I think this sort of critique misses the point. We’ve seen a flurry of objections from libertarians, some claiming (as you do here) that Paul’s faith is selective, others that his interpretations are in error. And both points can be sustained, after a fashion. He picks and chooses when to apply these principles, and those choices are instructive of his underlying assumptions. And it’s certainly possible to conclude, from libertarian principles, that Jim Crow was wrong.

But there’s a deeper problem here. By 1964, it would have been possible to repeal every Jim Crow law, remove every public interference in private transactions, and that would hardly have brought the institutionalized system of racial discrimination crashing down. Jim Crow was not a purely legal construct – it was a formalization, codification, and extension of a variety of privately discriminatory practices that were already taking root. Not only was overt governmental intervention necessary to undo the damage of an earlier intervention, it was necessary to change the course of a broad social consensus that had dominated the South for decades.

Libertarianism itself offers no sufficient remedies for such a situation. Every libertarian necessarily picks and chooses when to apply its doctrines strictly, and when loosely. Paul’s choices reveal his sympathies with right-wing populism; some of his more articulate libertarian critics similarly reveal their own biases, to the urban-hipster lifestyle, to the lucrative system of high-finance, or what have you. But they are no more inclined than Paul to admit this.

I think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can serve as a useful acid-test for contemporary political philosophies. Political thinkers ought to be challenged to explain how its goals, mechanisms, and achievements are consonant with their views – or if they’re not, what alternatives they would have embraced. Rand Paul has failed this test – he cannot square the circle of his views in anything other than tautological fashion. I suspect most leading Republicans would similarly choke on acknowledging the obvious truth that some problems can only be solved by the heavy-handed intervention of the federal government. And that, to me, is the big story here. Nothing Paul said is inconsistent with the stated principals of the Republican Party, other than his conclusion.

I want to expand upon this a bit.

I sort of have sympathy for Rand Paul’s position theoretically. But again, by not answering the question yes or no he gave the impression that he thought “Yeah, I think people should be allowed to discriminate in their private businesses.” He was smart enough to know that he couldn’t actually SAY that out loud, though, so he was stuck in the middle. He wouldn’t lay down his marker and make his argument.

Here’s where I part ways with Paul– and libertarians who think like him: Ending federal discrimination doesn’t go NEARLY far enough. Private businesses benefit from public money– sometimes federal money– in order to operate. We pay for the sidewalks in front of their buildings. We pay for the water in their pipes. We pay for the fire department, and we pay for the police. “Private” businesses don’t exist in a vacuum.

Furthermore in the South and end to Federal discrimination wouldn’t have meant an end to local and state discrimination, so Jim Crow laws could have stayed on the books. When Rand Paul says that violence could be prosecuted he’s ignoring what the laws said. If a black person had gone into a segregated place in the South and been assaulted, the black person would have been arrested for trespassing and causing public disturbance, because they were, in fact, breaking the law. The white people assaulting them? No troubles there.

The market wouldn’t have sorted this out, either, because the laws reflected the desires of the market. Even in those places where whites were in the minority, the whites had the power, both legally and economically. This meant that they could harass black businesses when they started up, preventing them from being profitable. They controlled the banks so they could refuse loans for no real reason. They controlled the police, so the police could decide what they wanted to enforce. The idea that “the market” would fix all this ignores the fact that the South had 100 years after the end of the Civil War to “fix” it, and hadn’t gotten around to it.

So yeah, the personal freedom of racist people to segregate was abridged by the passage of the Civil Rights Acts. A libertarian along Paul’s line of thinking would want to argue that doing so was a net negative, because the act introduced a distortion into the market and prevented it from changing itself. I hope I’ve laid out above why I think that’s just straight up wrong. I don’t think Rand Paul is a racist. I really don’t. I also don’t think he has thought through the extent to which his ideas can lead to racist outcomes, though.


As I look at these things, it really is maddening to me the degree to which this conversation has been co-opted by people saying that criticizing figures in American history and criticizing the way that history gets taught is to teach people to hate America. What utter nonsense. The United States is an incredibly diverse country, and should embrace that fact. Being honest about our mistakes and the people our mistakes have effected is part of embracing our diversity. Role models are everywhere; we just have to be willing for them to not look like us.

Even more we need to be willing to accept that people who do look like us have messed up in some evil ways. Wishing they hadn’t doesn’t make it so.

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