Tom Gualtieri calls out the white paternalism at work in Rand Paul’s hapless speech at Howard University.
Accusations of racism in Rand Paul’s April 10 speech at Howard University have by now made their way through the media cycle. He’s been defended and vilified, pronounced inept and lauded for “reaching out.” Of all the reactions I’ve read and heard, Andrew Sullivan’s struck me as the most pointedly contrary to the hammering Paul has taken. Sullivan writes, “…the sheer lack of any grace among some liberal commenters on what was an obvious outreach to African-Americans depresses me.” He goes on to point out that Paul shared his goals for ending discriminatory prosecution in the “drug war” by reducing sentences for “nonviolent possession” charges. Additionally, Paul said, “I am working to make sure that first-time offenders are put into counseling and not imprisoned with hardened criminals.” Great. Wonderful ideas.
Since Barack Obama’s first electoral victory, the GOP has been heavily criticized for, at best, its neglect of the African American community and, at worst, outright discrimination. While the Senator expressed two unquestionably admirable goals in his Howard University speech, the attitude is indicative of the larger scope of the GOP mindset. After thanking the President of the University, Paul says:
Some people have asked me “are you nervous about speaking at Howard?” They say, “You know some of the students there – they may be Democrats.” My response has been that, you know what, my trip will be a success if I can get the Hilltop to have a headline that says, “a Republican came to Howard but he came in peace.”
…The truth is, sometimes, when I do have doubts, I think of a line from T.S. Eliot, a line that says, “How should I presume to spit out all the butt ends of my days and ways, and how should I presume?” …Here I am today at Howard, a historically black college, here I am a guy who once presumed to discuss a section of the Civil Rights Act. That didn’t always go so well for me. Some have said that I’m either brave or crazy to be here today.
Andrew Sullivan presumes that Senator Paul has the best interests of the black community at heart – that Paul’s mission is a generous one. According to Sullivan, Rand Paul gets points for… I don’t know… trying? If he had been high on his own altruism, he was abruptly awakened by the audience response when he tried to remind Howard University students of the origins of the NAACP. This is the most insidious form of racism and though I do not doubt that Mr. Paul had some good intentions, the overall failure of the GOP waylaid them. The students of Howard University don’t need the GOP’s patronage; it is the other way around. The GOP wants the BLACK VOTE they lost in huge numbers. In decades of pretense at upholding individual rights while passing laws infringing on the very same, the GOP turned its back on its origins.
Having lost 93% of the African-American vote to Democrats in the 2012 election and holding congressional seats mainly through gerrymandering even though the majority of voters flipped a Democratic lever at the polls, the GOP faces the challenge of convincing votes out of the very people they continually alienate. Yes, both parties make speeches at big organizations, universities, non-profits and political groups whose interests they promise to support but the GOP has spent so much time alienating a population that any attempt to re-empower them is disingenuous.
I do believe there is something to Senator Paul’s integrity – his dogged, one-track belief in Libertarianism, even to the point of running logic off the rails is a kind of integrity – but his brand of blissfully unaware racism pervades the GOP. Paul’s speech at Howard successfully dismantled any goodwill he may have had by exposing the a “soft” racism he hides even from himself. As he mentioned, he’s been criticized for a single-minded view of the free market – claiming that The Civil Rights Act of 1964 does harm to individual freedoms by making discrimination illegal in private business. (See that interview here.) Paul would have it that proprietors be allowed to decide which races are best suited for service, presuming that the bad business of discrimination would eventually shutter their businesses. Belied by an utter lack of self-awareness and embarrassing, white paternalism, Senator Paul was like the oaf at the party who says “I’m not racist. Some of my best friends are black.”
Yes, we know Lincoln was a Republican (and if we didn’t learn it in elementary school, we’ve seen Lincoln.) We know the NAACP was founded by Republicans – 100 years ago! But today’s GOP bears no relation to its namesake of a century ago. With said party moving farther and farther from the welcoming spirit of Lady Liberty, it’s no surprise that anyone who isn’t a white heterosexual Christian takes the Grand Old Party for the Grossly Out-of-touch Party.
The base targeted by the GOP until the last election has latched onto aspects of Libertarian thinking – personal responsibility has become a mantra that accuses instead of uplifts. The GOP has incubated a tenet that someone’s gain automatically means someone else’s loss. The result is the slow death of the core of American values: all men are created equal. The base has been encouraged into a Lord of the Flies mentality where they are asked to think of everyone as the “other” instead of understand the US as a society which can only grow together. The leaders of the GOP have stopped seeing the human beings who comprise their voting blocks. To them, Black Americans are no longer people, they are a collection of votes to be harvested.
I don’t know about you, Senator Paul, but MY best friends are people.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle would do well to remember it.
AP Photo/James Crisp
*GMP and writer Tom Gualtieri apologize for a previous version of this essay in which Senator Paul’s speech was misquoted. It was an unfortunate error of fact-checking based on flawed sources but does not change the author’s perspective on the topic.