On Wednesday morning, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) gave an address at the historically-black Howard University designed to convince black voters to support Republicans. While some of his remarks, most notably on harsh drug laws and other civil liberties issues, were well-received, the majority of the speech consisted in Paul condescendingly explaining American racial history to the audience, occasionally incorrectly, and expecting that it would open black voters’ eyes to the real Republican Party. Here are five moments that encapsulated the general problem with Paul’s speech:
1. The Civil Rights movement is actually the “history of the Republican Party”. The thrust of Paul’s speech was a recapitulation of the history of race and racism and a defense of the Republican record on race (representative line: “The story of emancipation, voting rights and citizenship, from Fredrick Douglass until the modern civil rights era, is in fact the history of the Republican Party.”) The problem was that this speech, ostensibly designed to persuade black voters that the GOP was interested in them, was telling the audience things it already knew. Moreover, the speech didn’t grapple with what happened to make the Democrats the more racially liberal party in the mid-40s or the turn towards racially divisive politics on the Republican right, essentially skipping over the real reason the GOP alienated African-American voters.
2. Assumed the audience didn’t know the history of the NAACP. In one of the most awkward moments of the talk, Paul asked the audience if anyone knew that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been founded by Republicans. The audience responded with a resounding “yes!”
3. Suggested that African-Americans were “demeaning” the history of sergregation by calling voter ID laws discrimination. When asked how African-Americans could trust the Republican Party given its generalized support for discriminatory voter ID laws, Rand Paul told the audience to chill out about the measures, suggesting they were common sense. Paul argued that the view that these laws were an updated version of poll taxes was “[demeaning] the horror” of segregation. NAACP President Benjamin Jealous has said voter ID laws are “pushing more voters out of the ballot box than any point since Jim Crow.”
4. Mangled the name of the first popularly-elected black Senator. In what appeared to be an attempt to demonstrate his familiarity with the subject matter, Paul brought up Senator Edward William Brooke III (a Republican mentioned in the prepared remarks as “the first [elected] black U.S. Senator”). He referred to him, however, as “Edwin Brooks,” a point the audience corrected.
5. Misled about his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. Paul said “I’ve never wavered in my support for civil rights or the Civil Rights Act.” The problem, as Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer pointed out, is that he opposed the law’s ban on discrimination in “places of public accommodation” like businesses, one of its most important planks. As an audience member asking Paul about this issue pointed out, “this was on tape.”
If Paul wants to spearhead Republican overtures to African-Americans, he’s got his work cut out for him. Over 50 percent of black voters in the last election believed Republicans “don’t care at all about civil rights,” while 71 percent thought Democrats were doing strong work in the area. President Obama won 93 percent of black voters.