Yesterday, Republican Senate candidate from Kentucky Rand Paul told NPR's Robert Siegel that he was opposed to the 1964 Civil Rights Act provisions that outlawed discrimination in businesses "of public accommodation." Rand also said, however, that he would have marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.:
What I’ve always said is that I’m opposed to institutional racism, and I would’ve, had I’ve been alive at the time, I think, had the courage to march with Martin Luther King to overturn institutional racism, and I see no place in our society for institutional racism.
Several points are obvious: Paul does not understand the concept of "institutional racism," and he has no understanding of what Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for. The problem with the conservative appropriation of King based on a single sentiment made during the "I Have a Dream" speech -- the only King speech they've bothered to read -- is that it ignores the basic fact that the civil-rights movement was a fight for more and better government.
Black people had been living in the "leave it to the states" nightmare since Reconstruction, during which the war-weary North abandoned black people to the terrible lawlessness of a vengeful South. Civil-rights movement leaders were fighting for the federal government to secure their rights against the arbitrary tyranny of the political powers in the Southern states, which maintained their hold on local government through coercion and violence. That's why the attempted appropriation of the civil-rights movement by the likes of Glenn Beck is so bizarre -- the tyranny the civil-rights movement was the kind of federalist paradise he imagines.
In any case, this kind of principled free-market fundamentalism becomes less defensible in this instance when one realizes that the only thing that gives it political momentum is the passionate energy of racists. As Jackie Robinson observed from the floor of the GOP convention when Goldwater was nominated:
It was a terrible hour for the relatively few black delegates who were present. Distinguished in their communities, identified with the cause of Republicanism, an extremely unpopular cause among blacks, they had been served notice that the party they had fought for considered them just another bunch of “niggers”. They had no real standing in the convention, no clout. They were unimportant and ignored. One bigot from one of the Deep South states actually threw acid on a black delegate’s suit jacket and burned it.
Robinson further wrote about Goldwater at the time, "When I was asked my opinion of Barry Goldwater, I gave it. I said I thought he was a bigot. I added that he was not as important as the forces behind him."
Paul's defenders will argue -- as conservatives did with Barry Goldwater -- that Paul himself is not a racist. Indeed, Paul said he finds racism abhorrent and would not frequent a segregated business. And Paul rather incoherently defended his position as being "the hard part about believing in freedom." This is a key statement because it rather poignantly expresses the utter selfishness at the heart of Paul's argument against the Civil Rights Act.
Paul would never face the actual "hard part" of his vision of freedom, because it would never interfere with his own life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness. Rand Paul would not have been turned away from a lunch counter, be refused a home, a job, or denied a loan, or told to sit in the black car of a train because of his skin color, or because of the skin color of his spouse. Paul thinks there is something "hard" about defending the kind of discrimination he would have never, ever faced. Paul's free-market fundamentalism is being expressed after decades of social transformation that the Civil Rights Act helped create, and so the hell of segregation is but a mere abstraction, difficult to remember and easy to dismiss as belonging only to its time. It's much easier now to say that "the market would handle it." But it didn't, and it wouldn't.
Sadly, the Civil Rights Act has been too often portrayed as a victory for black people rather than a victory for the country, which is part of why people are willing to defend Paul's position as principled. But the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex or national origin." The position Paul is ultimately taking is that he believes businesses should be able to discriminate not just against black people, but against women, Jews, Catholics, Irish people, and on and on.
I suspect that as long as this conversation remains simply about Paul's defense of businesses' right to discriminate against blacks, he'll be fine, thanks to the lingering embers of American racism. But that's fundamentally not what he's arguing, and I suspect that his allies will find the larger implications of his position much harder to defend.
-- A. Serwer