Race and History

Rand Paul’s Comments on GOP Voter-ID Laws Mark a Turning Point

Senator Paul’s remarks about GOP voter-ID laws are a seminal moment in the ’16 campaign—and in the larger story of our racial history.

Andrew Nelles/AP

America has a race problem.

To address that problem, we must begin with the concerns of African Americans.

Although many groups have patterned their rights claims off of the civil rights struggle of black Americans, there is something distinct, and distinctly unjust, about the black experience in America.

Republicans have a special responsibility to own up to this reality, and to do something about it.

What Republicans have done in the past hasn’t been nearly enough.

Then again, the track record of Democrats is a dismal disappointment, too.

These are intense, high-level ideas. They’re arguable. They’re bracing. They’re probably even dangerous.

Taken together, they could make for a political earthquake. That’s why their kind don’t often make it into presidential campaigns.

But right now, bit by bit, they’re emerging from the careful pre-2016 positioning of Senator Rand Paul.

In the most important development of the nascent presidential campaign, Paul is making a patient, calculated effort to be seen taking African Americans seriously.

And he’s working, very pointedly, to focus his party around the truth about America that we might only understand by focusing on black America. He has warned Republicans that harping on Voter ID makes them look “crazy” and offends others, and raised the alarm about the urgent need for prison sentencing reform.

These are not isolated acts of pandering. Yes, Paul is playing politics—after all, he thinks the GOP needs to be transformed to win and to govern. But there’s more. Implicit in Paul’s harsh view of his own party is a powerful condemnation of what America has also become. He hasn’t come right out and said it, yet, but actions speak louder than words: Just as Republicans must reform or lose hope, so must America.

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It may offend some people that Rand Paul, of all people, might reveal the centrality of an agenda for African Americans to the recovery of both kinds of hope. Well, stranger things have happened.

Our ambitious activists of all stripes have just about sucked the last drop of pathos out of “raising awareness.” But for years, the GOP’s establishmentarian leaders have come to think of Hispanics and minority outreach as virtual synonyms. Despite the occasional Condi Rice, Herman Cain, or Michael Steele, the fact is that Republicans have all but written off black Americans. They are on the verge of giving up on them, of trying to forget they exist.

For the men and women who seem invisible to the GOP, what Rand Paul is doing may or may not be a canny effort to outflank his party’s complacent elite and its cantankerous base. (Paul’s counsel is to cool it on Voter ID, not oppose it.) What it is, no matter what else, is genuine awareness.

Yes, this is a relatively new look for Paul. Yes, it has taken a while for him to find his footing. But his approach is working.

The black audiences he’s engaging with don’t expect Republicans to transform overnight. Nor does Paul expect to flip black voters in a single election cycle.

Sometimes, however, the craftiest of political moves is to call out the elephant in the center of the room. Paul has altered the national conversation once before, with his filibuster on drones. Changing the politics of race, however, would be far more substantial an achievement.

This is not just true because the day of reckoning has arrived for Republicans who think they can “grow the pie” of votes without worrying about black voters. It’s also true because of the way African Americans are disserved by progressive ideologues obsessed with pushing the frontier of justice while its core rots away.

These awkward realities throw an unflattering—perhaps damning—light upon the proud promises made by both of America’s prevailing ideologies. For too long, conservatives have denied that the black experience is an especially bad one that no amount of personal responsibility or moral uplift can compensate for. They are so caught up in proving that life as a white person can be miserable that they refuse to hear how life as a black person is often automatically even worse.

Meanwhile, liberals have too often allowed the unique misfortune of black America to be politicized in two equally disingenuous ways. On the one hand, they have used hard Republican hearts as an excuse to tolerate levels of incarceration, segregation, and abortion that shock the human conscience—not to mention undermine the most basic foundations of a free and peaceful society. This has not happened because too many liberals are craven and corrupt, but because too many have divorced the imperative of identity politics from the reality of material conditions.

The task has fallen to marginalized Marxists to make this clear. As Walter Benn Michaels put it to Jacobin, “There isn’t a single U.S. corporation that doesn’t have an HR office committed to respecting the differences between cultures, to making sure that your culture is respected whether or not your standard of living is.” The point can be extended to universities. Two of the most prominent features of a college education today are outsized identity pride and outsized student debt.

On the other hand, too many liberals have allowed themselves to believe that every struggle for justice is the latest and greatest version of the centuries-old ordeal of black Americans. They easily convinced themselves that conservatives defended the uniqueness of the black experience in bad faith, as a way to divide and conquer marginalized groups. Sadly, African Americans have been martyred in the bargain.

Ta-Nehisi Coates ignited a firestorm of embarrassed fury among white liberals when he raised this possibility in a critique of president Obama’s frequently lecturing tone toward black Americans. For Coates, it’s telling that the one group liberals feel comfortable scolding is African Americans.

To be sure, a culture of generic, ubiquitous “privilege checking” is no substitute for an unstinting confrontation with the specific harm continuously visited on black America from the beginning. Specifically anti-black animus is not just one ingredient in the “salad bowl” of injustice. It is the key to understanding what’s wrong with America. Instead, black Americans more often get the message that they’re what’s wrong with America.

No matter how well-intentioned, the notion of solidarity among each and every oppressed identity group has somehow wound up systematically deferring the dreams of black America. The cult of diversity, in its celebrations, lures its faithful into acting as if no grievances are more fundamental or more rooted in history than others.

Black Americans know better, but they are institutionally pressured to fall silent. On the left, they are hemmed in by the pact of solidarity among self-identified oppressed groups. On the right, they are denied their due privilege as America’s most aggrieved, betrayed, and abused. Even the Native Americans, who were massacred almost to the point of extinction, escaped the curse of race slavery.

There is no analog to the experience of race slavery, and no analog to its bitter legacy. American race slavery was an institution without parallel in all of human history, before or since. It was not an act of genocide, but it was the largest and most enduring program devised by man to subjugate a race.

In a society where polite Republicans enthuse over race-blind equality, and polite Democrats over the dogma of equal diversity, African Americans are disadvantaged—yet again—from the start. For comfortable egalitarians of all stripes, the uniqueness of black America is an inconvenient truth.

Rand Paul is still a long way away from making this point forcefully. But almost alone among national political figures, he’s pointing our faces toward the facts.