Protests for police reform are sweeping the United States following the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and an untold number of other unarmed or innocent people of color. Amid the anger and sadness, one thing is clear: policing in America is a huge and complex problem. It’s also a historical problem. As Ta-Nehisi Coates observed in The Atlantic, the insane incarceration rate of blacks in this country is part of a long tradition; “America’s entire history is marked by the state imposing unfreedom on a large swath of the African American population.”
That tradition is as deep and as old as our revered constitution. The condition of possibility of America’s existence was a racist compromise baked into our founding document. We’re a country founded by people who declared forcefully that “all men are created equal” as a self-evident fact, and then 12 years later declared that black slaves were only worth three-fifths of free white men to avoid giving the South greater representation in Congress. The chokehold on people of color in America is written in ink. And it has always been about property.
So, perhaps ironically, I find myself sympathetic to the words of a southern white man, Senator Rand Paul. Listen to what he said when he was asked this week about Eric Garner’s death on MSNBC.
Senator Paul’s libertarian-leaning politics are controversial, but they’re also predictable — it’s not a surprise that he took an opportunity to knock excessive New York taxation. (A city that tried to ban large sodas is low-hanging fruit for conservatives who love to rail against the nanny state.) Paul’s argument is that high taxes on cigarettes in New York incubated an underground market that ultimately created the conditions for Eric Garner’s death. Here’s what Paul said about taxation: