The debate over "Is he a racist?" obscures the real issue: What should government do to promote equal opportunity?
I’m coming to regret using the term “racist” about the Tea Party. “Racist” is a personal insult, and it’s almost as impossible to prove it as to disprove it. It’s not a terribly illuminating term, either: If you call me a racist, you haven’t really described anything I’ve done that’s objectionable. You’ve just somehow designated me, and my so-far unchallenged arguments, outside the pale, so to speak.
“Racist” has come to be synonymous with a belief in black inferiority, and with holding other noxious stereotypes about black people, or other minorities. Someone could conceivably not be “racist” in that sense, and still hold political views that will ultimately perpetuate the second-class citizenship of people who aren’t white; in most cases, African-Americans. I think they could. I accept that it’s possible.
So: I am willing to take Kentucky GOP Senate nominee Rand Paul at his personal word that he is not a racist, whatever it turns out he really believes about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I don’t know the man, I can’t see into his soul. All I know is that we seem to differ, hugely, about the impact that centuries of slavery, legal segregation and discrimination have had on African-Americans, and on what to do about it.
I say “seem to differ” because Paul is now flipping and flopping and slipping and sliding like an oily politician. When I started writing this blog post, Paul was still insisting that he supported about 90 percent of the Civil Rights Act, but had reservations about its application to private businesses, just as he told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Wednesday night. I was prepared to concede that Paul may not be a racist, but explain how his views perpetuate racial inequality.
But then Paul spent most of Thursday changing his story. First, he told his conservative buddy Laura Ingraham that his only mistake was talking to Maddow in the first place. Midday, he issued a statement that he would not try to repeal the Civil Rights Act. Late Thursday an exasperated Paul told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “Yes, I would have voted yes” on the measure had he been in the Senate back when the act was passed.
What are we really supposed to believe about Paul’s beliefs?
Let me go back to my original point for a minute. I’m prepared to stop calling Paul, and other Tea Party supporters who oppose many of the reforms of the civil rights movement, “racist.” I’m prepared to believe that many of them, theoretically, wish the best for every non-white person in America. In defending Paul early today, libertarian blogger Dave Weigel wrote:
Paul believes, as many conservatives believe, that the government should ban bias in all of its institutions but cannot intervene in the policies of private businesses. Those businesses, as Paul argues, take a risk by maintaining, in this example, racist policies. Patrons can decide whether or not to give them their money, or whether or not to make a fuss about their policies. That, not government regulation and intervention, is how bias should be eliminated in the private sector. And in this belief Paul is joined by some conservatives who resent that liberals seek government intervention for every unequal outcome.
I disagree, wholeheartedly, with that point of view, which Paul seemed to espouse as of yesterday and which Weigel seems to defend. Anyone who knows anything about the history of the civil rights movement in the South knows it didn’t work that way. Black patrons didn’t really have the right to “decide” whether to give segregated facilities their money, and the vast majority of whites wholeheartedly voted with their dollars, and in every other way, to maintain them. Blair Kelley shattered Paul’s apparent argument in Salon today, drawing from the research on her groundbreaking book, “Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson,” showing how Paul echoes the very arguments segregationists used to defend separate (private and public) facilities back in the 19th century.
In his interview with Wolf Blitzer, Paul said, finally, that he’d have voted for the Civil Rights Act because “I think that there was an overriding problem in the South so big that it did require federal intervention in the ’60s.” Does Paul really believe that, or did he decide the constant questions about his stance weren’t worth the political aggravation?
I’m actually sorry that Paul caved on the question of the Civil Rights Act, because if he’d stuck to his guns, we could have had a debate about the correct remedies, past, present and future, for the enduring legacy of legal discrimination against black people. Of course, it’s stereotyping liberals to say, as Weigel did, that we “seek government intervention for every unequal outcome.” But the more Tea Partiers are expected to explain their actual political beliefs, and what they would do if they held public office, the more, I believe, their point of view will be exposed as marginal. Paul will face many more of these questions. Now he’s dodging queries about the Americans With Disabilities Act the same way he did the Civil Rights Act; he won’t say how he would have voted on it, but he expresses reservations about federal intervention in the workings of small business.
On Thursday Weigel uncovered a 2002 letter in which Paul chided the Bowling Green Daily News for endorsing the Fair Housing Act. He sounded pretty unequivocally opposed to the federal government messing with private businesses, for any reason:
A free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination, even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin … Should it be prohibited for public, taxpayer-financed institutions such as schools to reject someone based on an individual’s beliefs or attributes? Most certainly. Should it be prohibited for private entities such as a church, bed and breakfast or retirement neighborhood that doesn’t want noisy children? Absolutely not.
So questions about what Paul believes on these issues are going to dog him for a while, and they should. Does he support child labor laws? Food and drug regulation? Should we expect a statement tomorrow that actually, he would have voted for the ADA in 1990?
In the meantime, I feel a little bad for conservatives and libertarians who defended Paul, like Weigel, as well as my frequent antagonist, James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal. Taranto praised Paul for being “honest” about his unorthodox views (and attacked me for being a “demogogue”) today. When was Rand Paul being honest, last night with Rachel Maddow, or with Wolf Blitzer today? I’m not calling Paul racist. I’m just asking him to stand up for what he really believes, so we can have an honest debate about it.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America." More Joan Walsh.
More Related Stories
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
- Murkowski: Palin too disengaged to run for Senate
- In IRS scandal, new GOP tactic is ignorance
- Code Pink activist berates Obama at national security speech
- Cuomo: "Shame on us" if New York City elects Weiner
- Coburn calls questions about tornado aid "typical Washington B.S."
- Conspiracy theorists clash over London attack
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
Rand Paul is a U.S. Senator from Kentucky.