Rand Paul and the race question he wouldn’t answer

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If you want to get a Tea Party member’s blood to boil, mention lingering concerns about the perception of a link between its philosophy and racism. Is there smoke there or is it a liberal media attack?

Senate nominee Rand Paul is in the thick of it today after last evening’s conversation with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel. The key question was whether the 1964 Civil Rights Act was an overreach of federal authority.“Well, actually, I think it’s confusing on a lot of cases with what actually was in the civil rights case because, see, a lot of the things that actually were in the bill, I’m in favor of. I’m in favor of everything with regards to ending institutional racism,” he said. “So I think there’s a lot to be desired in the civil rights. And to tell you the truth, I haven’t really read all through it because it was passed 40 years ago and hadn’t been a real pressing issue in the campaign, on whether we’re going for the Civil Rights Act.”

So far so good — except for not knowing what’s actually in the Civil Rights Act. It’s kind of an important piece of legislation in the history of the United States. And, of course, making a distinction of being opposed to institutional racism raises the obvious question of whether there’s a form of racism you’re OK with.

So Siegel asked if he thought “that business shouldn’t be bothered by people with the basis in law to sue them for redress?”

I think a lot of things could be handled locally. For example, I think that we should try to do everything we can to allow for people with disabilities and handicaps. You know, we do it in our office with wheelchair ramps and things like that. I think if you have a two-story office and you hire someone who’s handicapped, it might be reasonable to let him have an office on the first floor rather than the government saying you have to have a $100,000 elevator. And I think when you get to the solutions like that, the more local the better, and the more common sense the decisions are, rather than having a federal government make those decisions.

That got the wags talking, and not because he answered the question by talking about disabled people and elevators to the third floor.

It intensified when he went on MSNBC a few hours after that interview and wouldn’t answer a simple question with a “yes” or “no”.

“Do you think that a private business has the right to say we don’t serve black people?” Rachel Madow asked.

Paul could’ve made the issue go away with one word, “no.” He didn’t. Which is why he put out a statement answering the question today, and said it was in response to “liberal media attacks.”

“I believe we should work to end all racism in American society and staunchly defend the inherent rights of every person. I have clearly stated in prior interviews that I abhor racial discrimination and would have worked to end segregation. Even though this matter was settled when I was 2, and no serious people are seeking to revisit it except to score cheap political points, I unequivocally state that I will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Let me be clear: I support the Civil Rights Act because I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws.

“As I have said in previous statements, sections of the Civil Rights Act were debated on Constitutional grounds when the legislation was passed. Those issues have been settled by federal courts in the intervening years

“My opponent’s statement on MSNBC Wednesday that I favor repeal of the Civil Rights Act was irresponsible and knowingly false. I hope he will correct the record and retract his claims.”

“The issue of civil rights is one with a tortured history in this country. We have made great strides, but there is still work to be done to ensure the great promise of Liberty is granted to all Americans.

“This much is clear: The federal government has far overreached in its power grabs. Just look at the recent national healthcare schemes, which my opponent supports. The federal government, for the first time ever, is mandating that individuals purchase a product. The federal government is out of control, and those who love liberty and value individual and state’s rights must stand up to it.

“These attacks prove one thing for certain: the liberal establishment is desperate to keep leaders like me out of office, and we are sure to hear more wild, dishonest smears during this campaign.”

What might have been a better answer? How about this one?

It ought to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street, and it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal.

That was John F. Kennedy’s assertion on the day the Alabama National Guard was deployed to escort two black students to the University of Alabama.

In the speech, he announced his intention to ask Congress “to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public–hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.”

  • Rand Paul himself is not a racist, and I will give him the benefit of the doubt.

    However, his politics *enable* racism, along with a lot of other problems. (How would a libertarian deal with the Gulf Oil Spill, for instance?)

  • Matt

    What on Earth is this man even saying? My head hurts.

    “I would have marched with MLK” is a pretty pathetic claim. How about now? Why is racism only spoken in past tense? How is businesses discriminating against a group *not* institutional racism?

    Why not answer the question Maddow posed? Whine all you want about the liberal media—the fact is Paul couldn’t say whether he thought discrimination was a bad thing. If it really is an issue with the federal government overstepping, then just admit it and make it clear that it’s a principle for you. It won’t make me vote for you, but it’s better than the silly dance now. It’s the waffling I can’t stand.

  • MR

    Andrew Sullivan has a good take on this today:

    “But was the [Civil Rights Act] in many respects an infringement of freedom? Of course it was. To bar private business owners from discriminating in employment would have been an unthinkable power for the federal government for much of American history. …A truly principled defense of individual freedom will inevitably confront the huge role government now plays in policing fairness in what were once entirely unfair private transactions. You could argue, and I would agree, that the Act expanded freedom immensely overall. But you have to concede, I think, that it also restricted freedom for a few.

    Paul’s entirely abstract intellectual argument wrests pure principles out of an actual society, with actual historical atrocities, violence, oppression and contempt…I do not believe you can reify an abstraction like liberty and separate it from the context – historical, cultural, moral – in which it lives and breathes and from which it emerged. I can believe in freedom and believe in equality of opportunity but I should be mature enough to see when there has to be a compromise between the two – and decide. On the issue of race in America, the libertarian right was proven wrong – morally, empirically wrong.”

    Full post

  • vjacobsen

    I watched the entire video of his Maddow appearance earlier this morning. It’s beyond clear that Paul truly believes that the section of the Civil Rights Act that addresses private businesses is an example of government being too controlling and far-reaching. His statements on NPR last night are disturbing as well, and yet again show that he truly thinks that there should be no federal protection of minorities or citizens with disabilities.

    Oh, there’s smoke there, for sure, and the smoke makes me kind of queasy.

  • Heather

    This guy makes me want to walk around quoting “Blazing Saddles”.

  • Joanna

    He says he’s not a racist, but he also says he’s perfectly OK with enabling racist discrimination–exclusion on the basis of the color of one’s skin–because of the idea that property rights should trump all other ideas of freedom or rights. This grotesque substitution of the liberty of the almighty dollar over any other kind of principle–fairness, human dignity, equal treatment under the law–is why Rand and his party are trying to roll back Civil Rights. The recent Supreme Court ruling that re-affirmed the idea that corporations should be treated like persons means that those with more money are more equal than othersl