By Tamar Jacoby
Special to CNN
Editor's note: Tamar Jacoby is author of "Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration."
Washington (CNN) - The caricatures have been flying from left and right since Tea Party Senate candidate Rand Paul started talking about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That Rand Paul is a racist. That his nomination proves the Republican Party is, too. That MSNBC host Rachel Maddow is a man-eating sorceress. That the liberal media ... you get the idea.
But actually, whether Rand Paul knows it or not, when he appeared unwilling to tell Maddow that he could fully support the Civil Rights Act, there was an important question lurking beneath the surface of his confused remarks. It's not a new question - Americans have been grappling with it for 150 years.
But it and others like it are sure to be reopened in the months to come, as the debate begun by the Tea Party deepens and the nation revisits the issue of where government should begin and end.
Paul thrust us into one of thorniest corners of that larger question: What's the government's role in regulating how private actors - private individuals and the private sector - treat people of another race.
The framers of the 14th Amendment wouldn't go there; in 1868, America wasn't ready for it. That classic text, the foundation of all civil rights law, deals only with how the state, not individuals or private businesses, should approach racial difference.
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