Toward An Abstract Courage

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Charles Lane with some smart words on Rand Paul:


Suppose an African American customer sits down at a "whites only" restaurant and asks for dinner. The owner tells him to leave. The customer refuses and stays put. What are the owner's options at that point? He can forcibly remove the customer himself, but, as Paul concedes, that could expose the restaurateur to criminal or civil liability. So he'll have to call the cops. When they arrive, he'll have to explain his whites-only policy and ask them to remove the unwanted black man because he's violating it. But they can only do that on the basis of some law, presumably trespassing. In other words, the business owner's discriminatory edict is meaningless unless some public authority enforces it. 

Conversely, it is precisely because of this nexus between private discrimination and public enforcement that the larger community, through the political and judicial process, acquires a valid interest in legislating against discrimination. The public is entitled to say whether their tax money should pay for arresting black trespassers on whites-only property.

Reason magazine has a nice link packaging all of their recent journalism on the civil rights acts of the 60s. In one piece, Glenn Garvin talks about how shocked the non-racist Barry Goldwater was to see bigots flocking to his banner. He's especially revolted by George Wallace of, all people, offering to switch parties and run as his vice-president. Of course Goldwater and Wallace deserved each other, because Wallace was also a non-racist.

Wallace was less principled, but he was also much clearer. Goldwater's sin was naivety, and a dangerous underestimation of the precise nature and vintage of evil then stalking the South. Wallace understood the evil too well, and thus set about manipulating it. Wallace knew that this was more than abstract theory, that there was real power at stake. 

In that sense, Goldwater is the more appropriate hero for today's generation of blissfully ignorant ("How did that 'White slavery' sign get there?") non-racist Republican. It's not so much that they hate you, it's they are shocked--shocked--to discover that some of their fellow travelers hate you. When discussing them, all bloggers are required to begin their missives by quickly dispensing with  with the "Are they racist?" strawman. Answering in the affirmative has been outlawed in polite company, where there are no actual racists. And so we are left, as I've said, with imbecility as an explanation, and a much more troubling query--"Are they stupid?"  ("Are you so stupid that you would allow racist newsletters to be published in your name?" "Are you so stupid that you would have a campaign manager with "Happy Nigger day" on his Myspace page?")

What Lane is pointing out is the moral deficit at the core of the private property argument, as applied to the South circa 1963. At that moment we were faced with the following question--Do we hold our property rights so sacred that we would send our police to arrest black people for trying to enjoy a milkshake? To the country's credit, we chose not to retreat into ideological rigidity and abstraction. 

Now, after the police dogs, night-sticks and fire-hoses have been beaten back, Rand Paul wants to reopen the question, while, to be sure, claiming that he would have had the "courage to march with Martin Luther King." This is a common strain of courage. It chiefly shines through in men born 50 years too late. Presently among the crowd, they are distinguished at that decisive moment when queried about wars they won't have to fight, in times they will never live. These men populate our history books. They are all on the wrong side.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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