comments_image Comments

In Defiance of His City's History, Washington Post Blogger Defends Rand Paul on Race

Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for Kentucky's U.S. Senate seat, famously immersed himself in a tub of hot water over his opposition to portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- the portions that prohibit private owners of establishments from discrimination on the basis of race and other distinguishing factors. (Walking back from comments he made in his interview with Rachel Maddow on Wednesday night, Paul now says he would have voted for the bill if it came before him.) In a media environment where Paul is finding few friends outside the right-wing blogosphere, one mainstream blogger is defending the candidate against charges of racism: David Weigel of the Washington Post. Weigel's defense of Rand Paul is particularly troubling, appearing, as it did yesterday, on the Web site of the major newspaper of a city that, until the 1964 act passed, was segregated. Weigel is no right-wing guest columnist; he's on the Post payroll as its point-man on all things right-wing. I know Weigel, and think he's an excellent reporter. And, actually, I rather like him. But his defense of Paul denies the evidence laid by the history of Weigel's own adopted hometown. Paul's argument as Weigel, who leans libertarian himself, describes it is this:
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.
Rand Paul's biggest mistake, Weigel asserts, is that he told the truth about what he believes. "So is Rand Paul a racist?" Weigel asks. "No, and it's irritating to watch his out-of-context quotes -- this and a comment about how golf was no longer for elitists because Tiger Woods plays golf -- splashed on the Web to make that point." I do not, I admit, know whether or not Rand Paul is a racist, or simply misguidedly naive. But I do know that this conservative, libertarian idea -- that private ownership trumps civil rights -- is nothing more than bigotry dressed up in the garb of "principle." And the alliance between Rand Paul's father, Ron, and the John Birch Society (which opposed the passage of the Civil Rights Act) leaves me deeply suspicious. First, Rand Paul's idea of government -- which, in his scheme, would be prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race -- is different from yours or mine. In a land ruled by Rand Paul, government would be scaled back to an unrecognizable stub of what it is now. There would be no Department of Education, for instance.  The federal government would be reduced to providing a national defense and, perhaps, an interstate highway system, and a few other core functions. I suspect that under a Paulian federal highway system, provisions such as rest stops would be ceded to the private sector. I bring this up because, with gas stations largely in the hands  of white people, there are still places in this country where, without the Civil Rights Act, it would be unlikely that an African-American would be able to find a place to relieve herself on a long car trip -- or perhaps even to gas up her car. Private colleges and universities -- the institutions that feed the national power structure in business and government -- would be free to reject applicants on the basis of race. (Since a Paulite government would be unlikely to be doling out federal dollars to any educational institution, the federal government would have no say in admission policies.) Banks, which often still discriminate on the basis of race and gender, would be free to do so with impunity. Good luck getting a loan to start a business or to buy a house if you're the wrong color, or happen to be a woman. In Rand Paul's America, black people had better carry their food with them when away from home, since no establishment that serves the public would be required to serve them. Washington Before the Civil Rights Act A friend -- a man my age who grew up in Washington, D.C. -- once sought to illustrate his experience of segregated Washington by telling me this story. (He was seven years old when the Civil Rights Act was passed.) His parents were the classic up-by-your-bootstraps examples of socially responsible social mobility. His father earned his college degree, thanks to the G.I. Bill (a piece of legislation Paul would have likely opposed), to become a social worker. His mother, who would earn her degree later in life, worked in a local department store. At that time, they had five children. On their way to some special occasion, the family stopped off at the department store so the mother could pick up her paycheck. She took my friend, her youngest child, into the store with her. He was about three or four, as he tells it. He was dressed, he said, in his Sunday best -- a wool coat with matching short pants and cap. His mother was made to wait for some time, during which it became apparent that he needed to go to the bathroom. She urged him to hang on, but he wound up soiling his best clothes. He still winces with rage and shame in the telling. Why didn't she just take him to the bathroom, you ask? Because blacks were not allowed to use the public restrooms in the department store. Neither could they use the fitting rooms. They were free to spend their money there, and they could work there (most likely for less than their white counterparts were paid). This is the world to which Rand Paul would have us go back. This is the Washington for which David Weigel is making apologies on the Web site of the Washington Post. I doubt that he intends it that way, but that is the effect. Rand Paul contends that the almighty market would correct, in the aggregate, for the prejudices of business owners -- that racism and discrimination are bad for business, so there's a disincentive for proprietors to make bigotry a policy for doing business. If that were so, then tell me, why does discrimination still exist? Why are African-Americans still turned away from certain establishments and rental properties, or kept from the halls of power? Why do women still earn 77 cents to every dollar a man makes? A little boy soiling his pants because he was barred, by virtue of the color of his skin, from using a public restroom may seem a small thing in the aftermath of slavery and lynchings, but if a person is deemed not good enough, on the basis of his physical characteristics, to share a bathroom with people who look like those who own and run everything, it's unlikely he's going to find his way into the corner office, no matter how smart he is, or how hard he works. Constitutional 'Originalism' and Racism The problem with the Constitutional "originalism" embraced by Rand Paul and others on the far right is that slavery was originally in the Constitution. It provided the original economic source of America's bounty, and created a power structure shot through with racism at the cellular level. When I first gazed, at the age of 12, on the U.S. Capitol Building, I stood in awe of the Temple of Liberty, thinking only of the glories of our nation's history and the democracy it enshrines. When native Washingtonians -- at least those who are African-American, who comprise the majority here -- gaze upon the dominant structure in our nation's capital, they see not only that, but an architectural wonder wrought by the hands of slave laborers (PDF). Don't get me wrong: I love the Constitution. I think it is a magnificent document, most notably for its ability to self-correct by the will of the people, and the fact that it is better than the men who wrote it. Originalists seek to trim the Constitution back to the original intent of the Founders, as if they were gods -- white gods -- sent by Heaven to save all of humanity. They mistake Madison, et al, for Jesus, forgetting that one was a slaveholder, and the other was not. (As for Jesus and Madison, Rand Paul yesterday suggested thatif everybody were Christian, laws -- of which Madison was a major fan -- would not be necessary.) Yet, even the Founders expected the Constitution to change, to correct for the inequities of society. That's why it was made to accommodate amendments, which are modeled in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the founding document, put there by the Founders. And I'm all for private property; I hope to own some myself someday. But private ownership is a right, not a virtue, as right-wingers of Rand Paul's ilk would have you believe. Weigel's defense of Rand Paul's truth-telling is, at best, insensitive to the history lived by the citizens of the city served by the newspaper for which he writes.