Rand Paul, Civil Rights Champion! Say What?

Today, Jonathan Chait took down Rand Paul’s claim that he had unwavering support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in comments he recently made at Howard University by pointing out that what he meant by ‘unwavering support’ excluded the part which forbids businesses from discriminating on the basis of sex, religion, ethnicity or race.  To borrow from the research of Chait’s article, here is a 2010 interview with Paul and an interview from the Louisville Courier-Journal:

INTERVIEWER: Would you have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

PAUL: I like the Civil Rights Act in the sense that it ended discrimination in all public domains, and I’m all in favor of that.


PAUL: You had to ask me the “but.” I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners—I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant—but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I absolutely think there should be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that’s most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind.

INTERVIEWER: But under your philosophy, it would be okay for Dr. King not to be served at the counter at Woolworths?

PAUL: I would not go to that Woolworths, and I would stand up in my community and say that it is abhorrent, um, but, the hard part—and this is the hard part about believing in freedom—is, if you believe in the First Amendment, for example—you have too, for example, most good defenders of the First Amendment will believe in abhorrent groups standing up and saying awful things. . . . It’s the same way with other behaviors. In a free society, we will tolerate boorish people, who have abhorrent behavior.

I can typically appreciate the nuance that proper libertarians can bring to an argument, but Paul’s view here brooches the morally disgusting in at least two ways:

The first is the notion that the equal protection clause extends to insentient entities.  Of course, business should be entitled to certain legal protections, but not the same ones that protect democratic participants.  It is only natural that businesses and corporations have goals that are contingent upon political action, but because the decision to leverage the company’s resources for political gain will almost certainly come from the top, such a decision should not be understood as being aligned with the goals of everyone associated with the company.  The notion of corporate personhood seems to be conveniently ignorant of that fact, and that, it seems to me, is where the logic behind Citizens United falls apart.  Citizens working in private industry may not be, and should not be expected to be united in democratic decisions, and the contribution of unlimited funds for political free speech (advertising) gives license to autocrats with the capital to distort the marketplace of ideas, and keep the meaningful platforms for democratic expression expensive.

The second is that Paul, like much of the GOP, wants centralized government to eschew its responsibility and power—say the power to tell businesses that they can’t discriminate, or tell people that they can’t own other people– and defer largely to local and state government for enacting laws and comprising the social safety net.  The principle of Federalism seems largely to be a mechanism which allows for socio-political gradualism—letting the law meet the people rather than the people meet the law.  Paul’s argument for businesses’ right to refuse service seems to be a watered down version of that—just companies instead of states.

As the Civil War and the civil rights movements have shown us, the variance of ideology between states, as represented in legal terms, has a tipping point, and letting either states or business take their sweet time in recognizing federal law is just another way to institutionalize racism, not extinguish it.  Paul believes business is only answerable to its customers, and that people will naturally patronize the more egalitarian businesses, and that commerce is democracy’s twin sister, and that one could never obscure the moral imperative in the other.  Hmm…but slavery.   Paul is right that commerce and democracy represent the will of the people, but freedom as well exchange of monies need regulating–and the Civil Rights Acts is just one example of that need.

Granted, the imposition of federal power is no guarantee of instant change.  When forced out of certain forms of racism, lawmakers will simply get cleverer.  When African-Americans got the vote, reading tests and poll taxes were instituted—a practice which hasn’t lost its appeal, still getting passed in the form of voter-ID laws.  However, to have not ruled on Civil Rights Act was to deny those turned away from Woolworths or wherever, legal recourse.

Rand seems quite confident that he would’ve stood up for civil liberties during segregation, but if his stance on gay marriage is any indication,  he doesn’t seem all that bothered by his complicity in denying people their civil rights.

The U.S. often acts on a small majority.  The amendment process requires 2/3rds of both houses for proposal and 3/4ths for ratification.  A Supreme Court judgement needs a 5 to 4 majority, presidents need at least 50.1% of the electoral.  In the Loving case, the Supreme Court ruled in spite of popular support for anti-miscegenation laws.  Today, if it’s newer than cellphones or the internet, they are reticent to weigh in.

Frankly, free speech is not an issue when it comes to the CRA.  Post 1964, one still has the right to think racist thoughts or say racist things, even publish them, you just cannot run a business that discriminates.  If you are a racist and a business owner, you are certainly neutered of your ability to be the best racist you can be, but business is in part, a public good and one is not always entitled to run it with every personal belief in mind.  Taxes help to pay for the financial and physical infrastructure that makes business possible, so they too are beholden to the laws of our democracy.  And just because judgement has long-since been rendered, the CRA does not prevent anyone from attempting to reignite those issues, or any issue.  Best of luck to anyone espousing British occupation or anti-miscegenation, but there is a difference between not being able to think and say whatever you want and not being able to do whatever you want.

To see my previous post on the right to refuse service, click here.

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Author: The Blue Route

What say you, the people?