Rand Paul Has a Race Problem

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This video frame grab provided by Senate Television shows Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. speaking on the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 6, 2013. Senate Democrats pushed Wednesday for speedy confirmation of John Brennan's nomination to be CIA director but ran into a snag after a Paul began a lengthy speech over the legality of potential drone strikes on U.S. soil.
This video frame grab provided by Senate Television shows Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaking on the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Senate Television)

The Republican Party needs to broaden its appeal beyond whites, argues Rand Paul, who, as the Washington Post reported, is now organizing in all fifty states for a potential run at the presidency. No doubt he’s correct. But if the senator renowned for his libertarian principles is to spearhead this change, he has some political soul searching to do.

Speaking recently at UC Berkeley, Paul told the famously liberal audience that demographically the GOP must “evolve, adapt or die.” Seeming to take his own advice to heart, Paul also used the occasion — a talk on domestic surveillance — to chastise President Barack Obama for ignoring civil rights era lessons.

“I find it ironic that the first African-American president has, without compunction, allowed this vast exercise of raw power by the NSA,” Paul said. He explained, “J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal spying on Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement should give us all pause.”

If this were a one-off comment, it might seem like a cheap shot, but it’s part of a larger pattern of outreach. Paul spoke last year at the historically-black Howard University; has touted “economic freedom zones” in Detroit and is collaborating with Eric Holder, the nation’s first African-American attorney general, in order to reform prison sentencing practices that disproportionately harm blacks.

Nevertheless, when it comes to making his politics palatable to nonwhites, Paul faces deep challenges.

One problem — but not the biggest — is Paul’s close working relationships with racists. Back in 2009, Paul’s senate campaign spokesperson had a Myspace webpage that included a comment tied to the Martin Luther King holiday that read: “HAPPY N***ER DAY!!!” above a photo of a lynching. While someone else might have posted the comment, it remained on the staffer’s page for nearly two years.

Then in 2013, Jack Hunter, Paul’s social media director — and the co-author of Paul’s 2011 book on the tea party — was uncovered as the “Southern Avenger,” a radio shock jock who regularly donned a mask emblazoned with the Confederate flag and had a long history of making racially inflammatory statements, including praising Abraham Lincoln’s assassin for having his heart “in the right place.”

Under pressure, Paul reluctantly fired both offending parties — but did so while denying any racism on their parts. Back in 2009, he absolved his staffer of having “any racist tendencies,” while last year he protected Hunter for two weeks before finally letting him go and blaming the media. “He was unfairly treated by the media, and he was put up as target practice for people to say he was a racist, and none of that’s true,” Paul said. “None of it was racist.”

Beyond the problem of Paul’s close affiliation with these bigots, his inability to see them as racists suggests a huge blind spot with respect to racism — and this is a more fundamental problem, for this blinkered vision will make it almost impossible for Paul to grapple with how racial resentment fuels support for the libertarian politics he fervently espouses.

Paul presents overweening government power — especially at the federal level — as the paramount threat to ordinary Americans. If he is to popularize this message, though, Paul has to face an ugly fact: libertarianism has attracted substantial popular support not despite its occasional association with racists, but because of its ugly racial undertones.

Where white supremacists once commandeered government to enforce their appalling vision, the civil rights movement recruited government to promote integration. Government efforts to outlaw discrimination and to promote inclusion in schools, workplaces and neighborhoods became key to the effort to move the country toward racial equality.

But in response, libertarian ideas flourished, for anti-government rhetoric provided a seemingly neutral basis for opposing “race mixing.”

Pioneering this new use of libertarian rhetoric in his 1964 campaign, the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater endorsed “states’ rights,” ostensibly a position on federal-state relations, though at the time all understood the target was federal efforts to push school integration. Goldwater also championed “freedom of association,” which purported to preserve the rights of property owners to exclude whom they wished, though in practice this meant the right of white establishments to bar minorities.

Today’s libertarian politics descends directly from this tradition. Illustrating the continuity, as recently as 2010, Paul himself endorsed the “freedom of association” argument, criticizing the 1964 Civil Rights Act for unjustly limiting the rights of private property owners. Paul put his position most succinctly in an earlier criticism of the Fair Housing Act: “A free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination — even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin.”

To his credit, Paul has since renounced those positions and frequently proclaims his opposition to racial discrimination. But as his responses to the controversies surrounding his staffers suggest, he still has a long way to go. Paul must grapple with why his small-government message resonates with so many whites — and if, for a sizeable number, the motive is a continued opposition to integration, then Paul must face this squarely if he is to craft a more inclusive party.

Ian Haney López is a law professor at UC Berkeley, a senior fellow at Demos and the author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. Follow him on Twitter: @dogwhistlerace
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  • Anonymous

    Really?This seems to you the same as the Jeremiah Wright issue? “webpage that included a comment tied to the Martin Luther King holiday that read: “HAPPY N***ER DAY!!!” above a photo of a lynching.”

  • Anonymous

    The Tea Party and Libertarians will be uneasy allies at best. A lot of people (I’d wager much of the conservative electorate) are fairly unaware of academic underpinnings of Libertarianism and would be scratching their heads over the Rothbard reference.

    Most Tea Party types are not going to be happy with Libertarian positions on defense spending or criminal system reform. To make it through the primary elections, Rand Paul will have to sound quite a bit like a typical Tea Party approved republican, and turn into something else entirely to be able to win the general election: a strategy that hasn’t worked well for the last two GOP candidates.

    I think where the article is spot on is that he seems to instinctively defend people and policies that might seem racist. The list of people calling “I’m not racist” goes back to the John Birch Society and others that fought against civil rights. Some people will think he’s just being a politician.

  • Merry C. Carey

    The Libertarians are where the TeaThuglicans came from! They are financed and RUN by Libertarian ex-Vice-presidential candidate David Koch! His campaign taught him that a 3rd party has very little chance of making major impact in the USA so he decided to co-opt and take-over one of the 2 major parties. It took many years but he has been successful!

  • Ryan Rhodes

    The article says a Facebook friend posted it to a staff members wall and he let the guy go even though it wasn’t the staff member who posted it. I don’t see how thats a lot different from the Van Jones situation. Maybe I misspoke, and it’s not the same as the Jeremiah Wright situation, but saying Barry Goldwater = Rand Paul is a bit like saying Jeremiah Wright = Barrack Obama.

  • Ryan Rhodes

    I doubt Bill Moyers would be scratching his head, and this is his place so :)

    They’re not exactly the same, but there may have been some overlap between birchers and libertarians back in the day. I would bet they added more young tech types in the last few elections than all the people that came before put together though. I’m one of those tech types, and I would almost dare say our average work environment is so diverse that it pushed everyone else’s work to change to match us. Who wears a suit anymore?

    The best thing Paul can do for the future is to build a diverse team.

    The war gods will need some appeasing for sure, but I also think the war platform by itself with no give and take, and you lose a general election the republican voter desperately wants to win so…

  • Ryan Rhodes

    Ron Paul’s 3rd party run taught him the same thing, but the Koch brothers are not the only people funding campaigns or even libertarians.

  • JonThomas

    When did Jeremiah Wright seek to put himself in the delicate position of wanting to be be a representative for every citizen of this country by running for the highest political office?

    When did Mr. Wright even work at a high level position on the campaign staff where he’d be a spokesperson for someone wanting that position?

    In your zeal to defend, you stretched, snapped, the took your eye out with that rubber band. Next time try crazy glue to patch up the holes, it’s more thematic.

  • Ryan Rhodes

    Ok, but what about Van Jones?

  • JonThomas

    What about him? Expound.

  • rg9rts

    Origins in The John Birch Society

  • Ryan Rhodes

    Well, normally when there is a staff scandal the press jumps on it and the heat keeps increasing until they give in and let the person go. Thats what happened with Van Jones. He was eventually let go and the news dried up. In the case of Rand Paul, we’re not talking about a staff member he won’t cut. We’re still talking about a staff member he cut almost five years ago.

  • JonThomas

    Not being a follower of any real soft ‘news’ programming, I am not fully versed on what Van Jones did or didn’t say.

    To me, in my world, there was no ‘scandal’. Until you raised his name, I never heard of Van Jones. Maybe I’m woefully ignorant?

    Rarely do I care what someone may have said, or may have reportedly said in the past. So-called ‘scandals’ today are often simply negative hype expressed towards people whom certain other groups of people dislike.

    Notice please, I did not defend, nor did I agree with (or against) anything that Mr. (Dr.? Right?) Paul’s friends said – or may have said – I simply commented on your use of logic.

    I also think Mr. Lopez has made a point in this article about the actions and in-actions of those close to Mr. Paul, but as I said, these were people Sen. Paul chose to be close staff members.

    I asked about Mr. Jones in response to your reply. Without knowing how you see any potential conflict, I will refrain from a comment on his situation.

    Was Mr. Jones a close staff member of Pres. Obama’s campaign?

    If there is serious hypocrisy, and it is defended or allowed, then okay… there is legitimacy to the complaint. If there are situations such as a distinct lack of acceptable traits, or an abundance of negative personality characteristics which would negate effective leadership, then that too makes for an acceptable complaint.

    However, if it’s just that someone doesn’t like someone’s words or positions on issues, that’s a disagreement, not a ‘scandal’.

    Back when the Rev. Wright video was circulating, I did not disagree with a lot of the content of his message. I would say things differently, I would disagree with some of what he said, and how he said it… and I would speak against what I disagreed with, but it takes more than a person sitting in an audience hearing a few words spoken in passionate intensity to make a ‘scandal.’

    You should hear the way my white NYC relatives speak. Then throwing stones against other people’s world view quickly pales. This doesn’t make things acceptable, but it does put them in context.

    I know very few who can claim a lack of hypocrisy.

    Do I think Mr. Paul is a racist? I really do not know. I do think it is a pervasive trait in some of the communities of his background. Even where I live it would be difficult to randomly ‘shake a stick’ (as the saying goes) and not knock a racist’s teeth out.

    Do I think that context and position matter? Yes. But not knowing what you personally have against Mr. Jones’ words keeps me from posting a direct comment on his situation.

  • Ryan Rhodes

    He used some ugly language in a speech about republicans, and then it came out he was a 911truther and a member of a radical organization, and he had to resign. It’s the same basic story.

    I agree there is a lot of hypocrisy with the character assignation side of the news though. I much prefer to stick with the issues they actually vote on.

  • JonThomas

    Sorry I used the ‘crazy’ glue expression. I’m worked up today over a few things I’ve been reading. I guess that comment disqualifies me from running for office? Lol.

    You and I seem to see the world through a slightly different lens, but I agree with you that “with the character assignation side of the news though. I much prefer to stick with the issues they actually vote on.”

  • Ryan Rhodes

    No problem. I enjoyed reading your comments, and there is always two sides to everything. I do think there might be an opportunity where a small change in the republicans causes an even bigger change in the democrats.

  • Anonymous

    Rand Paul has a race problem because 5 years ago, some anonymous person left a racist comment on his Senate campaign spokesman’s myspace page? Then the guy he hired to manage his office’s Twitter account and Facebook page turned out to be a former shock jock at a local radio station? That’s what you call a close affiliation with bigots?

    Between Rand Paul’s past staffers and a guy that writes books about “coded racial appeals”, the latter is the one with the race problem.

  • urpaul

    Screw off Ian, you know how completely BS this article is from top to bottom. You dig up comments linked to a 2009 MySpace pages that could’ve been made by anyone as evidence of racism? You try and tie him to a movement that may have had some racist elements that was occurring around the time he was born, and that’s evidence of his race problem?

    By your logic is Barack Obama racist because of the Dixiecrats? Do pro-choice feminists and Progressives support eugenics because Margaret Sanger supported it? Democrats supported Robert Byrd right up until his death a few years ago, I’d love to know what that indicates in your book. If I find a racist comment somewhere below can I safely assume you’re out there burning crosses every night?

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  • tohu777

    >…he still has a long way to go.

    But the problem seems the creed, and not the man (and I’m thinking of Ron Paul, as well). Libertarianism is just atavism striking a vanguard pose, its own silly mock-Futurism. And, yes, the libertarian political program maps well to that of Jim Crow-era white supremacism; but at the same time it maps very well to very old Chamber of Commerce points (disdain for regulation & for labor policy), none of which are “political” in any real sense. A libertarian politician in the U.S. is a disingenuous imposter mouthing platitudes while wishing (like Ayn Rand herself) that this democratic republic would reset itself as a neo-Sparta.

  • http://thewritepractice.com/ John Fisher

    That sounds like the same old apologism, and to me it doesn’t wash. And I say that advisedly, having listened to it all my life in my native, very conservative state.

  • http://thewritepractice.com/ John Fisher

    Blinders. See above.

  • Anonymous

    You’ve said nothing of substance.

  • Anonymous

    All that has been “well-documented” is 2nd and 3rd degrees of separation between Rand Paul and these so called assorted right-wing racialists. If you can provide some genuine substantive action on his part that lends some credence that such views are his own, or that these groups in any way influence his policy views, I’d be more than willing to pay you some credence. In the meantime, I dismiss them as easily as I dismissed the claims that Obama was involved with the Weather Underground.

  • NotARedneck

    And the RepubliCONs have a racist problem – without the racist vote, they would drop to third place in a 2 way race!

  • http://police-state-watch.blogspot.com/ JTWilliams

    Weak stuff, weak guilt by association. Believe it or not, not everyone who opposed Lincoln and the Civil War was/is a racist who wants to see black folks back in irons. Im sure due to government worshipping educational system- the writer is probably correct, and libertarianism will be rejected in favor of Santa Claus, again. SO dont worry

  • Anonymous

    The “senate campaign spokesperson”is not exactly a lowly staff member. He should have known better. The comment was up for TWO years! It surely didn’t turn his stomach like it would many of us.