Rand Paul and the danger of careless rhetoric about civil rights

Rand Paul’s simplistic assertions neglect the blood-soaked reality of the fight for civil rights.

Ed Reinke/AP
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul won his party's primary election in Kentucky this week. But he's found himself in a political flap over whether he supports the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The day after becoming the Republican Party’s nominee for the Senate seat in Kentucky, political neophyte and “tea party” enthusiast Rand Paul insisted to National Public Radio, “I’m opposed to institutional racism, and I would’ve, had I been alive at the time, I think, had the courage to march with Martin Luther King to overturn institutional racism.”

Pundits on both sides of the aisle are weighing in on Mr. Paul’s prevarication about his hypothetical support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark antidiscrimination law.

Generally lost in the outcry, however, has been the senatorial candidate’s claim that he would have stood alongside Dr. King in his fight for racial justice. Comments like Paul’s threaten to mute the hard-fought, blood-soaked reality of the civil rights fight.

Prior to his statement, Paul has said that though he agrees with the intent of the legislation, to his mind the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is too broad. He has indicated he thought a private business should have the right to refuse to serve black people.

Paul’s effort to demonstrate his moral righteousness by paying vacuous lip service to King even as he decried government actions to redress racial inequalities follows a well-worn path. It’s a course first laid out by President Ronald Reagan, the preeminent architect of the dismantling of civil rights-era legislation.

Like Paul linking himself to King, President Reagan seized upon a similar opportunity to demonstrate his support for a single black man. In Reagan’s case it was former heavyweight boxer Joe Louis, whose death in 1981 provided an opportunity for a very public and official display of racial tolerance.

The author of a conservative political agenda that sought to disassemble the policies of “privilege,” Reagan permitted Louis, the otherwise unqualified Army veteran, to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The president released a brief statement alongside his decision:

“I was privileged and will always be grateful to have had Joe Louis as my friend. The son of an Alabama sharecropper, Joe Louis fought his way to the top of professional boxing and into the hearts of millions of Americans. Out of the ring, he was a considerate and soft-spoken man; inside the ring, his courage, strength, and consummate skill wrote a unique and unforgettable chapter in sports history. But Joe Louis was more than a sports legend – his career was an indictment of racial bigotry and a source of pride and inspiration to millions of white and black people around the world. All of America mourns his loss, and we convey our sympathy to his family and friends. But we also share their pride in his professional achievements, his service to his country, and his strength of heart and spirit.”

Adept at inverting the rhetoric of race, Reagan used Louis’s death to bolster his conservative agenda. On the one hand, the president stressed Louis’s individual accomplishments, evidence that the “land of opportunity” offered a chance for anyone who worked hard and made a legitimate effort to achieve his own “rags to riches” story.

On the other hand, in conjunction with a vague allusion to “racial bigotry,” Reagan highlighted the collective embrace of Louis by whites and blacks.

By demonstrating that racial tolerance had been achieved in the hearts and minds of white Americans, made explicit by his own act of goodwill toward Louis (the same black man whom the Internal Revenue Service had relentlessly hounded for back taxes during his lifetime), Reagan could justify the elimination of “inherently discriminatory” race-based policy initiatives that seemed to have no place in an egalitarian society. For Reagan, Louis offered affirmation of this ideal.

Rand Paul has, however, revealed himself to be far less adroit in walking the tightrope of race – attempting to claim his own goodness while he denounced government efforts to affect real change.

His simplistic assertion that he would have had the fortitude to stand alongside Dr. King, a man who regularly faced the very real threat and reality of violence, offends the sensibilities of all who understand the genuine sacrifice and terror endured by every single one of those demonstrably courageous people who actually did march, sit in, stand up, or register to vote.

Paul expressed his apocryphal support for Dr. King in a hapless attempt to distract the public from his tangible disregard for racial justice. Dr. King risked his life to help secure the passage of a law that Paul so emphatically criticized.

The righteous claims of hypothetical action stand in stark contrast to the long hard battle of civil rights protesters. Such claims threaten to not only mute the notion of racial justice, but to render it altogether banal. As a society, we should be very cautious of demonstrating similar careless rhetoric about our racial progress if we fail to support it with deeds.

Marcy S. Sacks is associate professor of history at Albion College in Michigan, and she is writing a book about boxer Joe Louis.

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