Rand Paul Explains Black History to Black People

Human Rights

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- If, in his speech to the students of the historically black Howard University on Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., sought to demonstrate he was down with the concerns of African Americans, his approach left a bit to be desired.

He explained black history to black people. He suggested that he was brave to have shown up. He quoted a poem that is said to be the lament of a sexually frustrated middle-aged man.

Paul went on to deny killing budget autonomy for the District of Columbia, despite the three poison-pill amendments he added to the bill. During the question-and-answer period, he chided a young voting rights activist for comparing voter ID laws to the obstructions African Americans faced at the polls during Jim Crow. And he said he had nothing against the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- despite being on record as opposing the provision that desegregated the lunch counters that were occupied at great peril by the Freedom Riders who fought the South's Jim Crow laws. 

In short, Rand Paul delivered a pretty embarrassing performance, but perhaps not in ways that the audience for whom his speech I believe his speech was intended -- Republican primary voters -- would notice.

Not that all was lost for Paul amid the audience in the auditorium of Howard's School of Business: his proposals for ending the mandatory minimum sentences that have led to the incarceration of massive numbers of African Americans for non-violent offenses, and against military intervention abroad, were well-received.

Charity Begins at Home

In apparent preparation for the presidential bid he's contemplating, Paul addressed a polite but skeptical audience in a speech that was part damage-control, part condescending history lesson and part appeal to African-Americans to embrace his neo-libertarian philosophy.

The damage Paul needs to control is that he did to himself when he went public during his successful 2010 campaign for U.S. Senate with his true feelings about the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- specifically the part that integrated lunch counters, restaurants, and other privately-owned establishments that are open to the public, which, he said, he opposed. But in his speech to the largely African-American audience at Howard, Paul suggested that his position had been "twist[ed] and distort[ed]" by his "political enemies."

(Judge for yourself: Here's Paul on The Rachel Maddow Show in May 2010.)

Just a couple of minutes into his speech, Paul referred to the controversy, attempting to frame it with a T.S. Eliot poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prusock," in ways I found incomprehensible:

When I think of how political enemies often twist and distort my positions I think again of Eliot's words, "when I am pinned and wriggling on the wall," how should I presume? And here I am today at Howard, a historically black college; here I am, a guy who once presumed to discuss a section of the Civil Rights Act. That didn't always go so well for me. Some have said that I'm either brave or crazy to be here today.

(Here I might offer a word to my white brothers: Acting as if it's an act of courage to appear before an audience of black people might be, well, a bit presumptuous.)

When challenged on his Civil Rights Act decision during the question-and-answer session following his speech, Paul artfully asserted that he never voiced opposition to the landmark legislation that ended Jim Crow, saying:

I've never been against the Civil Rights Act, ever. And I continue to be for the Civil Rights Act...There was a long interview that had a long extended conversation about the ramifications beyond which -- and I have been concerned about certain portions of the Civil Rights Act...as they are now being applied to smoking, menus -- you know, listing calories and things on menus -- and so I do question some of the ramifications in the extensions, but I never questioned the Civil Rights Act, and have never come out in opposition to the Civil Rights Act, nor have I offered anything to alter the Civil Rights Act, so your characterization is incorrect.

"Obfuscation would be the charitable word" for that answer, said Professor Greg Carr, chair of Howard's Afro-American Studies Department, in an interview with AlterNet. "I think he would have scored more points if indeed he [showed he] was coming here for a conversation, by saying: ‘These are some of the things I've said in the past, and I don't know that I would necessarily reconsider them, but let me explain to you why I said those things.'"

But I'm not so certain it was the students of Howard University who turned out for his speech that Paul was necessarily trying to reach. I saw the speech's intended audience as one that lives beyond the urban campus of Howard, on the cul-de-sacs and in the subdivisions of America's suburbs.

Carr took issue a bit with my cynical view, saying he saw Paul as trying to do both things: reach out to African Americans, but also to white swing voters.

"I don't think he's any different in that regard than when Bill Clinton took on Jesse Jackson and Sistah Soljah," Carr said, noting that Clinton is slated to deliver a commencement address at Howard's upcoming graduation ceremony.

"I think [Paul] achieved his purpose in the first 30 seconds: Stand at the podium at Howard University and get a picture," said Carr.

Whitesplaining Black History

There were enough awkward moments in the one hour Paul spent in the Howard Business School auditorium that to recount them all would be exhausting. He said, for instance, that the Republican Party lost the votes of African Americans when the Democrats began offering "unlimited federal assistance," while Republicans offered something "less tangible-the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets." (Apparently the GOP's messaging tweak of the 2012 critique of "free stuff.") The party's post-1968 politics of racial resentment apparently have nothing to do, in the Rand Paul universe, with the loss of African American votes.

But the most cringe-worthy involved Paul's long disquisition, during his speech, on the history of the Republican Party as the party of Emancipation, and his apparent assumption, during the question-and-answer session, that the students assembled before him at one of the nation's top universities didn't know the history of their own people, leading ThinkProgress to describe his speech as "whitesplaining."

One student asked Paul if he belonged to the party of Lincoln, or the party of Nixon and Reagan, Paul descended into a recounting of the GOP's glorious past, including that the first African-American U.S. senator was a Republican. But when he couldn't summon the name of Edward Brooke, the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate, while making the point that the Massachusetts politician was a Republican, students shouted it out.

He sought to drop some knowledge on the students by asking how many would know, if he asked, that the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were Republicans. Students replied with laughter: "Yes!" and "We know."

The students who questioned him were polite but exacting, save for the usual curveballs that show up in many a political event: When Paul invoked the words of Martin Luther King, two students unfurled a banner that read: "Howard Does Not Support White Supremacy". And a member of the Nation of Islam showed up at the Q-and-A mic to implore Paul to launch an investigation into the death of Malcolm X, and asked the senator's views on the establishment of a separate black territory within the U.S. The audience expressed its displeasure with the question and the questioner with a collective groan. (For the record, Paul opposes the establishment of a separate African American nation.)

Points for Showing Up, But What About D.C. Women?

The students I spoke to after the speech, all African American, gave him points for showing up, but opinions of his appearance were varied.

Monique Dodd, a freshman film major at Howard, saw Paul's appearance as a "photo op," and while she didn't appreciate his answer on the Civil Rights Act question, and questioned his complaint about the regulations of Clean Water Act that Paul expressed in answer to another questioner, she nonetheless hoped she was seeing a trend. "I wish more Republicans would come to HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) and start an open dialogue, because we can't start social change without having some type of discussion." She laughed, however, when asked if she thought Paul didn't understand the depth of knowledge possessed by his audience. "To come here and ask if we knew that the founders of the NAACP were Republicans -- yes, that was a little bit of a faux pas."

Dodd also said she felt Paul "waffled" in his answer to a question about the amendments he added to an act that would have given the District of Columbia budget autonomy -- amendments that ultimately killed the bill, one of which, as stated by DCist, "formalized the prohibition on the use of local funds for abortions" for poor women. Note that those "local funds" are taxes collected by the District of Columbia from its residents, who elect the local government that, in any other U.S. city, would have control over the spending of those revenues.

"I'm from Maryland, and I have a representative I can turn to," Dodd said, but women in D.C., she explained, have no representation in Congress.

In fact, during Paul's speech and the Q-and-A session that followed, the Kentucky senator's draconian, no-exceptions anti-abortion views never came up, nor did any issues related specifically to women's rights. "He didn't address that, and I wish he would," Dodd said.

Hemp and Mass Incarceration

Kwanda Trice, a doctoral student at Howard who hails from Paul's home state, suggested that Paul wasn't looking at matters of full participation in the economy, and the toll of incarceration, when it comes to race. (It was she who asked Paul the question that gave him the opportunity to note his opposition to mandatory minimum sentences.)

"In Kentucky, we just legalized hemp growth for industrialization, and that's all well and good, but in our state..., the numbers in McCracken County and Graves County and Trigg County in terms of incarceration are astronomical for drug possession and for marijuana possession. My question is, going forward, how is this hemp industrialization...going to be beneficial for the African-American community? Are we going to be able to participate in this new economic growth? What is this money going toward?"

She noted that the state lottery has failed to be the panacea for funding education that it was promised to be.

Asked for her overall impression of Paul's appearance, Trice said, "Honestly, I'm gonna give him a little bit of props. He could have chosen any HBCU, but he came to Howard...where the students are very informed about policy; they came ready for him....However, I can say, there's a lack of connection...because he doesn't have diversity in his staff."

Paul's purpose in appearing at Howard, Trice said, was simply "to get ready for the next election and show he's had some kind of interaction with African Americans."

The Math Tells the Story

Natasha McKenzie, a political science major at Trinity University in D.C., saw Paul's appearance at Howard as being about more than race: she saw it as a play for the votes of college students, one of the groups identified for targeting in Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus's outreach plan.

"A lot of people saw him after the State of the Union, delivering the libertarian response," McKenzie said, "and it was something that a lot of people, especially African Americans, identified with because he did bring up issues such as poverty and the War on Drugs, which is something that has to be dealt with, quickly and firmly."

She continued: "Sometimes I think that if we want the Republican Party to change, we have to break bread with them..."

I asked McKenzie if she felt that Paul's appearance was a show for swing voters, or a genuine attempt to win African-American votes.

"Well, I'm a math person," she replied. "So looking at electoral counts, looking at the people that came out and voted for the Republican Party [in 2012], they are up for trouble in the 2014 and 2016 elections with voters, because white male voters don't count anymore when it comes to... that swing vote. So now I feel like they're at a point when they need to identify with groups for votes. But I do think it's a genuine effort. I mean, the Republican Party has faced a lot of backlash, and anybody who has faced that much backlash would figure out a way to bridge the gap and work on stuff that would actually benefit those they did ignore in the past."

The Content of His Character

Professor Carr, while expressing pride in the students who attended the Paul speech, and especially those who participated in the question-and-answer session -- where issues addressed ranged from genetically modified food to drone warfare to voting rights and the limits of environmental regulation -- was perhaps a bit more critical of the senator.

"Well, the speech contained no surprises," Carr said. "I thought his staff put him in a decent position to talk about the Republican Party and black folks sympathetically. I mean, it was a little bit of a faux pas when he couldn't remember Ed Brooke's name, but I don't put that on him. And he didn't mention Tim Scott," Carr added with a smile, speaking of the Senate's only African-American member, a Tea Party Republican elevated from the U.S. Congress by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to replace Jim DeMint, the Tea Party power broker who resigned in December to take up the reins at the Heritage Foundation. "I thought that was interesting."

Carr said he thought Paul failed to comprehend the depth of knowledge of the audience he was addressing. "I think the question-and-answer [session] revealed Rand Paul's character, and his political acumen," Carr said -- especially when he was asked if he represented the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, or that of Richard Nixon (who launched the Southern strategy that drew the segregationist Dixiecrats) and Ronald Reagan (who coined the racial stereotype of the welfare queen).

In his answer, said Carr, Paul "conveniently forgot Barry Goldwater, he forgot [Herbert] Hoover's lily-white Republicanism -- he kind of alluded to the exodus of the Dixiecrats to the Republican Party but he didn't seek any conversation about the shift in the Republican Party, post-integration -- he just said, I'm with Lincoln in the 19th century and Ronald Reagan was, too. It revealed his character. He just won't confront the question."

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