Rand Paul's twisted race lies: His new views on civil rights are as phony as the old ones

Prospective GOP front-runner claims views on civil rights have evolved. Not if you dig into what he actually says

Published July 12, 2014 1:45PM (EDT)

Rachel Maddow, Rand Paul      (AP/Nam Y. Huh/Andrew Nelles)
Rachel Maddow, Rand Paul (AP/Nam Y. Huh/Andrew Nelles)

If you Google "Rand Paul Civil Rights Act," the first prompt that comes up is "unconstitutional," so it was definitely heartening to see his apparent about-face on the act's 50th anniversary, when he attended a local commemoration at the Shelbyville, Kentucky, home of Dr. Maurice F. Rabb, a prominent civil rights activist in the 1940s and '50s. “Every major civil rights activist that came to the South stayed with my parents,” Chris Rabb said. “They were not allowed to stay in hotels.”

Paul has previously voiced his objection to the Civil Rights Act precisely because it put an end to such private-sector discrimination. But on this occasion, he released a statement saying, “'It is simply unimaginable to think what modern America would be like if it were not for the brave men and women who stood up for the rights of all Americans. The legislation changed the future of our nation by enforcing the belief that all men and women are created equal."

The next day, Rachel Maddow duly noted Paul's change of heart. "Rand Paul went to Shelbyville yesterday, and he sang the praises of the civil rights movement and the civil rights activists and specifically the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” she said, going on to repeat Paul's statement, even displaying it on screen. “Rand Paul coming out in full support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” she said afterward, “which is nice, and I don't mean to be raining on the parade, but I have to point out that this marks something of a shift in Rand Paul's position on this legislation.” She then replayed a clip of her famous May 19, 2010 interview with Paul, in which he repeatedly refused to say he would have supported the bill. Specifically, she played a segment in which Paul said, “There's 10 different titles, you know, to the Civil Rights Act, and nine out of 10 deal with public institutions, and I'm absolutely in favor of. One deals with private institutions, and had I been around, I would have tried to modify that." He went on to indicate that he might or might not have finally agreed to support the bill, with just one title that he objected to.

I can't help but join with Maddow in applauding Paul's change of heart — but I do still harbor some deeper doubts, not least because Paul has dissembled, disinformed and confused so frequently and so much on the subject over the years — he's even gotten the number of titles in the Civil Rights Act wrong; there are 11 of them, not 10. More significantly, as Ian Millhiser noted back on April 10, 2013, there are numerous examples of Paul going on the record — both in print and on videotape — expressing his opposition to the Civil Rights Act:

Here’s video of him saying it to a Kentucky paper’s editorial board. Here’s a lengthy interview where he tries to defend his opposition to the Civil Rights Act to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Here’s video from just last year of him defending his father’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act (according to Rand Paul, “it’s not all about race relations, it’s about controlling property, ultimately.”)

Yet on that date, Millhiser noted, Paul insisted otherwise to an audience at the historically black Howard University. “I’ve never been against the Civil Rights Act. Ever,” he said, “I have been concerned about the ramifications of the Civil Rights Act beyond race… but I’ve never come out in opposition.”

It's good that Paul's views have apparently evolved over time, but it's disturbingly less good that he still can't admit the change in his thinking, because there's still a great deal of confusion, contradiction and outright falsehood that he's perpetuating. In the passage I quoted above, for example, he substantially misrepresented the balance of the Civil Rights Act, and dramatically downplayed the extent of his “principled” opposition. A true change of heart would mean coming to terms with those inconvenient truths, admitting his past mistakes, and coming to terms with them, rather than stubbornly refusing to square with the facts.

First off, the Civil Rights Act was not simply 9/10ths concerned with public institutions and 1/10th with private. The balance was far more mixed than that, because the forms of discrimination were far more deeply intertangled than Paul's superficial philosophy can allow for. As already noted, there were 11 titles in the act, not 10, though the eleventh was titled “Miscellaneous.” Of the other 10, not one but two of them dealt with private institutions: Title II dealt with discriminatory service in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce — which is what Barry Goldwater, following his then-aide William Rehnquist, pegged his libertarian opposition to — while Title VII dealt with employment discrimination.

Of the other eight titles, two were modest attempts to roll back discrimination in voting (a public institution, involving a plenitude of private bad acts) which were utterly inadequate (hence the Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed the following year), and just three titles were exclusively about desegregating public institutions: Title III, prohibiting state and municipal governments from denying access to public facilities; Title IV, encouraging public school desegregation and authorizing the U.S. attorney general to file enforcement suits; and Title VI, preventing discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funds. Are we really to believe that Paul wouldn't have had any “states' rights” problems with any of these? That seems unlikely on its face — particularly given Paul's opposition to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which he has also criticized for imposing federal law on state and local governments as well as private businesses — but I'd like to give Paul the benefit of the doubt. I'd like to hear him deliver a full-throated argument against using “states' rights” against the Civil Rights Act. That would be something worth hearing. Then I'd like folks to consider if they could imagine him saying any such thing back in 1964.

That leaves three other titles. Two cover both public and private forms of discrimination. Title V strengthened the Civil Rights Commission originally established in the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Its purview included both public- and private-sphere discrimination. Title X established a new entity, the Community Relations Service, within the Department of Commerce, which also had responsibilities covering both public-sphere and private-sphere discrimination. Finally, Title IX made it easier to remove civil rights cases from state courts with segregationist judges and all-white juries and put them under federal jurisdiction. This was yet another title which states' rights advocates like Paul objected to as tyrannical at the time.

So, totaling all the above, we find two historically weak titles dealing with voting, which were superseded the following year, three titles dealing with public-sphere discrimination — at least one of which (public education) was vehemently resisted by states' rights advocates at the time, and has formed the backbone of the ongoing attack on public education — two titles dealing with private-sphere discrimination, two titles dealing with both public and private discrimination, one title expanding federal power at the expense of “states' rights,” and one miscellaneous title. If we look frankly at the sorts of things that Rand Paul has said over the years, there are more titles he would appear to have problems with than there are ones that he would not.

It's all well and good for Paul to claim otherwise — particularly now that he claims to support the bill in its entirety. But he has such a long and quarrelsome record of objecting to the act itself, or to similar-spirited legislation, that an inevitable cloud of doubt still lingers over him — a cloud that's only reinforced by his long history of blowing smoke on the subject, and following in the footsteps of his father before him. If he really and truly has had a change of heart, then he has a rather substantial mess of past statements to clean up — and the sooner he starts on it, the better.

Let's start with his father, just to be clear what the Paul family legacy is regarding civil rights. Ten years ago, in 2004, Ron Paul was the only member of the House of Representatives to vote against a bill hailing the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not improve race relations or enhance freedom,” Paul said, “Instead, the forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty.”

Ironically, there may have been a germ of truth in what Paul said. White supremacists certainly did see their individual liberty diminish — their precious tyrannical “freedom” to make other peoples' lives a living hell destroyed. Yet, who but Ron Paul lamented that in 2004? As for increasing racial tensions, no less an authority than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., himself would actually agree with Paul — but with a decided twist. As King explained in his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” the practice of nonviolent resistance very consciously was intended to raise tensions, to be disturbing, because it was responding to an intolerable status quo, and that was the only way to bring about desperately needed change. So temporarily increasing racial tensions was all part of the larger process of ultimate racial healing. Here's King, responding to a letter from leading local white clergymen, but he might just have well been speaking directly to Ron Paul, 40 years later:

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.... It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Such is the tension that Ron Paul denounced in 2004 — and eight years later, his son defended him for it, calling him “an extraordinary man.” This happened on CNN's "Starting Point with Soledad O'Brien" (transcript/video), where Rand Paul was appearing as his father's campaign surrogate during the GOP primary campaign.

After O'Brien read Paul's statement from 2004, she added, “Let's give you my kind of take on this or my perspective. My parents couldn't -- my mom is black, my dad is white. They were not allowed in restaurants together because of discrimination. They couldn't get housing because of discrimination.”

Paul somewhat incoherently responded:

You say that's awful [discrimination] and something he doesn't support [doing anything about], but I think if he were here he would say that's awful and something that he doesn't support [discrimination itself]. But I think the thing about Ron Paul -- this is what makes him extraordinary. He is an extraordinary person in American politics and probably unique in American politics. He voted against giving a gold medal to Mother Teresa, but that doesn't mean he doesn't like what Mother Teresa did. So the issues are a little more complicated than you scratched the surface...

Ah yes! Ron Paul is an extraordinary person, and Soledad O'Brien is such a superficial thinker, just like her parents before her. What did they know? They were just experiencing the pain of segregation — their own private, personal pain. What did they know or see about the deeper philosophical reality? What about the segregationist’s pain? Did they ever stop to think about the plight of the poor, long-suffering plantation owner? The night rider? The lynch mob member? Of course not! Superficial, that's what they were. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Also superficial. Only Ron Paul — not just “extraordinary,” but “unique in American politics” — has the power to see things as they truly are, free “from the bondage of myths and half truths.” That's what Rand Paul was peddling, just a little over two years ago. This is what he went on to say:

It is not for civil liberties because of that. For example, there are things that people are concerned about that were unintended consequences. People who believe very fervently in people being -- having equal protection under the law and against segregation and all that still worried about the loss of property rights in the sense that... for example, I can't have a cigar bar anymore.

You say, that has nothing to do with race. The idea of whether or not you control your property it also tells you come in here, I want to know the calorie count on that and the calorie Nazis come in here and tell me... I don't think you can measure the calorie count there. That's the point. That's the point. It's not all about that. It's not all about race relations. It is about controlling property ultimately.

Now, I have to hand to it Rand Paul. He was right about one thing — his father was not ordinary if it meant seeing cigar bars and “calorie Nazis” as trumping civil rights. But the antonym to “ordinary” he was looking for isn't “extraordinary,” it's “nutty,” and there are far too many nuts running around the GOP today. So if Rand Paul is finally willing to shut the door on all that, I say, “Welcome, brother, welcome.”

But he still has a whole lot of 'splainin' to do.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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