Rand Paul at Howard

Speaking at a historically black college, the GOP’s leading libertarian might have bluntly addressed his party’s recent record on race. Instead, says Jamelle Bouie, he was condescending and intellectually dishonest.

Alex Wong/Getty, file

When I heard that Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was speaking to students at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, D.C., my first question was this: does Paul want to reach out to African-Americans, or does he want credit for being the kind of politician who would make that move?

It’s cynical, but it’s also well founded: Paul wouldn’t be the first Republican to go before an African-American audience in questionable faith. Mitt Romney’s 2012 appearance at the national conference of the NAACP, when he accused Obama supporters of wanting “free stuff,” stands as a prominent example.

What’s more, if Paul has a reputation among informed African-Americans voters—the kind of people who would listen to a senator speak on a Wednesday afternoon—it’s for opposing a provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that banned discrimination in public accommodations regardless of ownership. As Adam Serwer writes for Mother Jones: “Only by extending the ban on discrimination to all places of public accommodation, including privately owned businesses, could freedom against discrimination actually be upheld.”

But I’m not one to prejudge, and neither was the audience: a collection of students and community members who, by the time Paul arrived, had filled the modestly sized auditorium. And indeed, Paul’s speech, billed as an attempt to explain the history between Republicans and the black community, started on a decent note. “I come to Howard today,” he began, “not to preach or prescribe some special formula for you but to say I want a government ... that encourages you to write the book that becomes your unique future.” He continued, “You are more important than any political party, more important than any partisan pleadings.”

Within minutes, this went out the window.

The rest of his time was devoted to a lecture on the history of the Republican Party as it relates to civil rights. But there were no words on the GOP’s fraught relationship with black voters over the last 50 years. At no point did Paul acknowledge Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Lee Atwater’s racial demagoguery, or Ronald Reagan’s decision to denounce “welfare queens” and embrace “states’ rights” while campaigning in Philadelphia, Mississippi—where three civil-rights workers were murdered by white supremacists.

Instead, he focused his time and attention on the 19th-century history of the GOP. “The Republican Party’s history is rich and chock full of emancipation and black history,” he said. The GOP is the party of the Great Emancipator, the party of the first black senator, and the first black members of the House of Representatives. It was the Democratic Party, Paul noted, that opposed Radical Reconstruction and then built Jim Crow. “No Republican,” Paul declared, “questions or disputes civil rights.”

This was all good to hear, though a little strange—the students at Howard are some of the best in the country. They don’t need a history lesson. To wit, when Paul asked if they knew that the founders of the NAACP were Republicans, the crowd gave a loud “yes,” as if to say: this is a dumb question.

In telling this history, Paul raised a question he was unwilling—or unable—to answer. If the GOP is so supportive of African-Americans, then why have black voters abandoned the party in droves?

The answers are obvious. In the 1960s, it was Barry Goldwater and his “states’ rights” opposition to the Civil Rights Act. Later, it was Richard Nixon and his “law and order” candidacy of 1968. For decades, Republican politicians capitalized on racial prejudice—from Willie Horton to Jesse Helms’s “hands” ad to calling Obama the “food-stamp president”—alienating black voters in the process.

And indeed, if you were interested in an extended history lesson, you could go back further. By the 1880s, after the Compromise of 1877 had removed federal troops from the South, Republicans had joined the rest of white America in giving up on the project and promise of Reconstruction. It was the grandest bargain of the late 19th century. Republicans would walk away from their commitment to black Americans, devoting their energy to economic development, while giving Democrats the space to disenfranchise freed slaves and codify their economic disadvantage. By the beginning of the 20th century, called the “nadir of American race relations,” the GOP had all but surrendered on the question of black rights, ineffectual support for anti-lynching laws notwithstanding.

But Paul took neither route. Instead, he identified the New Deal as the point when blacks began to part ways with the GOP. “African-Americans understood that Republicans championed citizenship and voting rights. but they became impatient for economic emancipation.” Impatient to escape decades of disenfranchisement? That’s one way to put it. Another way is to say that when offered a choice between the limited benefits of the Roosevelt administration and the indifference of the GOP, they took the former.

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As for now? The reason African-Americans continue to vote for Democrats, according to Paul, is that they offer something tangible—it “puts food on the table”—while Republicans push more abstract policies that “promise more economic growth.” If you were feeling uncharitable, you could call this another version of Mitt Romney’s “gifts” argument, for which he was rightfully pilloried after last year’s election.

To be fair to Paul, there were times when he connected with the audience. He got genuine applause for opposing mandatory minimum sentences and jail time for nonviolent drug offenders.

On the main, however, this was a speech that missed its mark. It’s not hard to see why. Throughout, Paul showed a complete unwillingness to deal with the actual issues that divide Republicans from the black community. During the question-and-answer session, a Howard student asked if Paul could square his rhetoric—the GOP is friendly to black voters—with the party’s nationwide push for strict voter-identification laws. These laws threaten to disenfranchise the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who lack access to the tools, funds, or credentials needed to attain I.D.s. And if Republican rhetoric was any indication, this wasn’t an accident—one Pennsylvania lawmaker described his voter-I.D. law as the push that would give Mitt Romney the state, and the presidency.

In other words, the long lines of last November—concentrated in black and Latino areas around the country—weren’t an accident. They were the product of deliberate policies set in place to achieve a particular result. How did Paul answer this question? By chastising anyone who would “liken using a driver’s license to taking a poll test,” and telling the questioner that “using a driver’s license to ensure voter integrity is a good thing.”

Likewise, when a sharp student asked whether he made a distinction between the Republican Party of the 19th century and the one of Nixon, Reagan, and the last 50 years, Paul replied by eliding the distinction: “We [Republicans] don’t see a difference between the two. We see horrible Jim Crow and horrible racism, and we see it as all Democrats.”

At the beginning of his speech, Paul set a low bar for himself by way of a joke: “My trip will be a success if The Hilltop [the Howard student newspaper] will simply print that a Republican came to Howard but he came in peace.” And several observers have followed suit. “Rand Paul gutsily chose to speak today at Howard University,” wrote Jonathan Chait at New York magazine. Likewise, said Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon, “Give Rand Paul some credit for attempting to do what several decades of elections have shown is a tall order: Get African-Americans to vote Republican.”

I’m not sure Paul deserves any praise for his performance. It would be one thing if Paul had gone to Howard eager to listen as well as speak. Instead, he condescended with a dishonest and revisionist history of the GOP. “He didn’t say anything I didn’t expect,” said one student, a senior majoring in sociology and economics.

I couldn’t agree more.