Question: What do you call someone who believes White shopkeepers and owners of other large and small businesses have the “right” to discriminate against Black people?
Answer: Rand Paul.
That answer, of course, came from the Kentucky Republican senator’s own lips during his 2010 campaign for the office when in an interview MSNBC.com talk-show host Rachel Maddow asked him his views on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Paul did not say he approved of discriminating against anyone. Nonetheless, he asserted, it was wrong for the landmark civil rights act to prevent owners of private businesses from barring certain people as customers. This was a matter of principle, and besides, the way America’s free-market economy operated, all Blacks and others who encountered such discrimination had to do was to find another similar business that would accept them.
The scorching blowback to that hypocrisy has subsequently forced Paul ever since to try to obscure the meaning of his remarks to Maddow. When he appeared before Howard University students last year, he declared to the predominantly Black audience, “I’ve never wavered in my support for civil rights or the Civil Rights Act.” But the fact that he appended a critical “out” — “The dispute, if there is one, has always been about how much of that remedy should come under federal or state or private purview.” — did not go unnoticed.
Paul’s need to continue to cast his true racial views and recent hiring practices in shadow are part of the relevant framework for considering his speech March 19 to students at the University of California at Berkeley that garnered so much attention.
The speech came as Paul is locked in an increasingly bitter battle with Texas Senator Ted Cruz for front-runner contender status for the GOP 2016 presidential nomination. It was billed by his staff as showing Paul marching bravely into a hotbed of liberalism, carrying his campaign against unwarranted government spying on American citizens, and appealing to a non-traditional (for a Republican candidate) audience.
But the real attention-getting part — which Paul’s staff the day before made sure the media knew was coming — was Paul’s assertion that President Obama had a particular racial duty to rein in illegal spying.
Paul declared he found it “ironic that the first African-American president has, without compunction, allowed this vast exercise of raw power by the [National Security Agency]. Certainly J. Edgar Hoover’s [ Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from the 1920s to the 1960s] illegal spying on Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement should give us all pause.”
Paul, sliding away from history’s messy complexities, said nothing about the fact that all of Obama’s White presidential predecessors had either directly approved or allowed to continue domestic intelligence programs that put White citizens under surveillance, too.
And because, according to the strictures Paul himself had set, all the questions he was asked had to be submitted beforehand and were vetted by a moderator from the school’s Republican student club, Paul was not asked to say anything further about that particular topic. (Nor was he asked about his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.)
So, he didn’t have to actually discuss the government spying programs of the 1960s and 1970s, which did more than merely spy on Americans: they sought to destroy the livelihoods of individual Blacks and the viability of Black organizations, and to provoke violence among Black radicals – and sought to do the same thing among White radicals and White anti-Vietnam War organizations.
No matter what one thinks of what’s been revealed thus far about the current government surveillance of American citizens, there’s nothing we know of that compares in any way to the police-state actions of Hoover and the Central Intelligence Agency programs of the earlier period.
Paul, of course, knew that his one-to-one analogy of the 1960s-1970s government-spying program to today’s was wrong. Then, there was no rational reason to believe that the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement, or the anti-war movement presented any threat to America’s existence.
Today’s government surveillance efforts — set in place by the Bush administration, which Paul, true to form, did not mention – are by contrast the direct product of what the terrible events of September 2001 made manifest – that America, like all nations, are vulnerable to mass-destructive attacks by rogue terrorist groups and so-called lone-wolf operatives.
The discussion about how far such domestic surveillance efforts should go in the face of that clear danger is, given America’s Constitution, truly a matter of national security.
But that’s not what Rand Paul is interested in. He’s just playing the political equivalent of three-card-monte, hoping he can entice enough prospective voters to not catch the verbal sleights of hand that are his stock in trade.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.