Does Senator Rand Paul Understand Racial Inequality Still Exists?

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) penned what is either an insincere attempt at social critique in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, or a very conflicted and confusing piece. Either he’s being careful not to take a side — and neutral does seem like a strange stance considering the title — or the article was written by two people. That, or perhaps Sen. Paul suffered a dissociative fugue halfway through writing it.

His op-ed calls on Americans to “Break down the wall that separates us from the ‘other America.'” He starts out on a note that many Americans and politicians are starting on today: Ferguson, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the “injustices embedded in our criminal justice system.” He waxes poetic about Congressman John Lewis’s concept of “two Americas,” and says that while he’s lived in the first his whole life — enjoying the benefits of white privilege — he recognizes that in the second America people “experienced a ‘daily ugliness’ that dashes hope and leaves only ‘the fatigue of despair.'” However he quickly switches gears to remind readers that “we shouldn’t be misled to believe that excessive force is the norm, not the exception.”

Excessive force not being the norm, in reference to shooting and killing an unarmed black man, is perhaps a legitimate, if unnecessary observation. Some might argue whether or not it’s true to deny in a more general sense. For some neighborhoods, it may indeed be the norm, and isn’t that his whole point? And given the historic day — which one can only imagine is the motivation for his op-ed in the first place — there’s nothing wrong with saying “this is a problem” and leaving it at that. 

Furthermore, given the number of people targeted by police, both consciously and subconsciously, many lives are made harder because of inherent inequality and again, this is the norm in many many places, for many people. That’s the important takeaway point. The fact that he transitions so quickly from that critique to a story about a good deed from a police officer pretty much makes his article an exact copy of every knee jerk reaction to Ferguson and current racial tension in the United States out there. Yes, there is racism, but here’s a group of police officers handing out Christmas presents, and here’s an officer singing Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” And of course there’s Paul’s personal favorite, Helen Johnson, and what a kind police officer did for her and her family.

On the one hand, these stories are great, because it is good to be reminded that police officers are extremely necessary and often can be wonderful people who work very hard to keep people safe. So published as they are, as feel good pieces of news, they are praiseworthy perhaps. Taken without strings attached, and cutting back on as much cynicism as possible — for example that a good deed recorded and published for good PR is no good deed — they are worthwhile reminders of positive men and women on the force.

But given as constant foils to the very necessary and very important conversation about U.S. law enforcement and racial inequality, they are pointless and distracting. And what’s more, cliche. It’s not a unique reminder, it’s not useful or concrete information for discussing systematic problems with the legal and enforcement system within the U.S.. And Here’s where Sen. Paul get’s it somewhat right, if only for a short time.

“The blame should be directed to the laws and the politicians who order police into untenable positions, that insist on ‘taking down’ someone for selling a couple of untaxed cigarettes.” Blame is easily tossed all around. Our countries officers behave and are allowed to behave based on policy and the enforcement of that policy alike.

Body cams are one solution to enforcement, but policy still needs to be changed on what is enforced, how it’s enforced, the severity of punishment, and training on how to deescalate a situation or handle racial relations if tensions arise. More useful than Rand’s collection of quotes, canned racial commentary, and knee jerk cliche counter-argument, would have been suggestions on how to move forward from here, on how to “break down the wall that separates us from ‘the other America.'” His last line, encouraging America to “commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King by uniting the two America’s into one” with equal justice, is weakened and crippled by the inability to commit in his article. Discussing racial inequality in the justice system doesn’t need a counterargument to be fair.

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