Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is no doubt delighting in the liberal love he is receiving for his TIME magazine op-ed on race, policing, and the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri. But I am not one of those easily impressed. Why not? Because he is wrong.
Paul is correct to critique the militarization of local police in America. But that’s not a new phenomenon when it comes to black communities in America – it’s been the norm since the 1960s. And the demilitarization argument does nothing to challenge nor change the fact that “nearly two times a week in the United States, a white police officer killed a black person during a seven-year period ending in 2012”, according to FBI statistics. Two times a week. That’s everyday local policing, and has nothing to do with the militarization of local police forces, nor big government. The choke-hold that killed Eric Garner or the multiple gunshots that killed Michael Smith were not military-grade weapons. They were weapons used as the result of what Senator Paul believes in most strongly, when it comes to civil rights: “a lot of things can be handled locally”.
And this is where he gets it most wrong. Sen. Paul’s most mistaken premise is that “big government” is “at the heart of the problem”, presumably when it comes to the loss of black life at the hands of the police.
In what country is he living? He is flatly wrong to suggest that there has been an “erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows police to become judge and jury.” Maybe that’s the case for white America, but certainly not for black America or communities of color. There is no “erosion” of civil rights and liberties because on some level, local police have never respected the rights and liberties of African-American communities. Black bodies have always been subject to surveillance, suspicion, illegal and unconstitutional search and seizures, brutality and – as we’ve tragically witnessed for the third time this week – murder. Murder of unarmed black people at the hands of local police. These lethal and violent deaths of black citizens – again, nearly two times a week – are not the result of “big government,” but small government at its worst.
And this is where the brute facts, based on the radically different lived experiences of minorities in America, come up against Paul’s shaky premises. Because for black Americans, what Sen. Paul disparages as “big government” is actually the government we trust most. It is local government that African Americans trust the least – and the primary reason is the relationship of local police to black communities. According to a 2013 Pew poll, only two in ten whites “trust the government in Washington to do what is right” either always or most of the time, compared with roughly four in ten blacks and Hispanics.
The high level of trust black Americans have in the federal government does not hold for state and local governments. According to research by political scientist Shayla Nunnally, blacks are the least likely to trust their local governments, compared with all other racial and economic groups, while “whites trust local government more than blacks do.” This is no doubt explained partly by aggressive police surveillance of black communities – a local government function with direct consequences from everyday harassment via “stop and frisk” or, as we’ve seen this week yet again, the loss of black life. It is also explained by the politically strategic use of “local control” and “states’ rights” arguments throughout American history as justifications for the resistance of local and state governments to recognize African Americans’ full civil and human rights.
Since Reconstruction, and again during the so-called “Second Reconstruction” ushered in by the Civil Rights Movement, the federal government has been the primary instrument for advancing racial justice in America. Let us not forget that Senator Paul is on record saying he would have opposed portions of the most significant piece of legislation advancing racial equality sixty years ago: the 1964 Civil Rights Act. If he really cares about black life in America, then his ideology, positions and policies should reflect that. But I’m not fooled, and you shouldn’t be either.
Dorian T. Warren is an MSNBC contributor, Associate Professor of International & Public Affairs at Columbia University and a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.