Originally published in Official Artur Davis
Rand Paul’s speech at Howard University yielded about what would have been expected. The media focused on the crowd’s tepid reactions. Various liberal pundits dwelled on Paul’s awkward moments: the senator unwisely choosing a “did you know” riff that assumed his audience’s ignorance about certain historical points of reference, while he blanked on the name of Edward Brooke, a Republican who happened to be the only black man in the 20th Century who won a Senate election; and Paul’s tortured effort to contextualize his criticism of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
If Paul was simply showing up as a token of “courage”, the kind of symbolism consultants push on candidates, he deserved the dismissive results he received. After all, at the root of such a strategy is not really bravery, but a cold willingness to use the kids who attended as props whose indifference lets him demonstrate resilience.
Assuming that Paul had a nobler goal, that of actually winning converts among Republicans’ single hardest to crack demographic, African Americans under 29, I would still call it a missed chance, from his perspective as well as theirs, and a reminder of why the gap between blacks and the political right is such a chasm.
First, there was Paul’s fixation on historical alignments that predate his audience’s grandparents. The men and women who heard Paul could have used a primer not on 19th century history or even pre-Voting Rights Act Dixiecrats, but on the GOP’s contemporary pattern of electing blacks, Latinos, and East Asian Indians to governorships or Senate seats. It would have been worthwhile to tell the many southern born black kids at Howard that it is Republicans who put a black man in Strom Thurmond’s old seat.
Paul devoted a lot of time to the dirty hands another generation of Democrats brought to the debate over race. But it would have been much more relevant for Paul to push his audience on why poverty and inadequately funded black school districts stayed so persistent during the decades of Democratic legislative rule in the South, a run that in the states many of Howard’s students return home to every summer, just ended in the last six years.
I wish Paul had given education reform a rationale instead of the catch phrase “civil rights”. I wish he had spoken more bluntly about the black children whose schools are too often promoting them without preparing them, or the middle class black couples who can’t buy their kids into the social capital and better prospects in the elite private schools across town, or even the award winning public school district in a neighborhood outside their price range.
I give Paul points for having the guts to denounce the comparison between voter ID laws and the cruelest tactics of the segregation era. But I wish he had made an additional point that a roomful of young black adults would have understood well: black people trying to navigate the modern commercial world without an ID face a lot more hurt and inconvenience than missing an election, and that pushing them to get the license or ID photo that makes them more functional strengthens a community instead of suppressing it.
I wish that Paul had understood history better himself, at least enough to know why African Americans resist a rhetorical vocabulary that depicts government as a threat to liberty. Howard’s undergraduates know that line from their textbooks, and they know it in the worst morally plausible context, that of segregationists trying to twist the constitution into a line of defense for Jim Crow. Paul would have done well to blast that misuse of the concept of liberty, and to spend time explaining that he knows events have made an absurdity out of it. The admission would have separated his libertarianism from the ugliness that preceded it.
On the subject of federal assistance, Paul rightly held his ground that more is not always better. But his mantra that “I want a government that leaves you alone” had no chance of resonating with students who view government as a source of student loans and Pell Grants, and to whom being left alone might well mean being uninsured during a health crisis. Paul avoided making the case that a conservative agenda might actually outperform liberal goals in the area of poverty or education. And in a university setting that teaches the value of offering evidence for one’s propositions, Paul mentioned no specific policies that would address the interests of people about to enter an uncertain job market while straining to pay down the debt of financing a degree.
In other words, a would-be president who has talked forcefully about his party’s need to refashion itself did no more than repeat a narrative that neither black nor white conservatives have managed to sell to black audiences. Paul had a chance to demonstrate something bolder than the willingness to endure a hostile crowd: that is, if he had the nimbleness to couch his arguments in the interests of the people he was trying to reach; and the empathy to show that economic inequality, entrenched poverty, and the rising numbers of blacks under 35 who aren’t reaching their parents levels of economic performance are the kinds of things he worries about.
Instead, Paul gave Howard what it expected to hear. So, both Paul and the crowd that turned out can say that they both stood the other’s company. The truth is they both left a little bit diminished.