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Rand Paul distorts Democratic and Republican parties’ respective records on civil rights for blacks

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On several occasions over the years (most recently HERE), I’ve written about how America’s two great political parties gradually traded places in the past half century on matters of civil rights and states’ rights, which resulted in the South switching from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican.

But we still occasionally hear from right-wing Republicans who think they’re making some important point by mentioning the Democratic Party’s racist and segregationist wing of 50 or more years ago.

This subject comes to mind with Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s speech the other day at Howard University, a traditionally black school.

Paul said:

We see horrible Jim Crow and horrible racism in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s — it was all Democrats. It wasn’t Republicans….How many of you — if I’d said, who do you think the founders of the NAACP are, do you think they were Democrats or Republicans, would everybody here know they were all Republicans?

Progressive blogger Steve Benen’s RESPONSE to Paul’s rhetoric is much the same as mine would be:

Paul seems to think his superficial understanding of history ought to be enough to persuade African-American audiences — Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, liberal Republicans helped form the NAACP, and segregation was a product of racist Dixiecrats. Ergo, in Paul’s mind, black voters should necessarily gravitate to the Republican Party.

Paul’s rudimentary grasp of history overlooks all of the relevant details — a point that was not lost on those who listened to the senator yesterday at Howard…

The Democratic Party, in the first half of the 20th century, was home to two broad, competing constituencies — southern whites with abhorrent views on race, and white progressives and African Americans in the north, who sought to advance the cause of civil rights. The party struggled with this conflict for years, before ultimately siding with an inclusive, liberal agenda.

As the party shifted, the Democratic mainstream embraced its new role. Republicans, meanwhile, also changed. In the wake of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act, the Republican Party welcomed the white supremacists who no longer felt comfortable in the Democratic Party. Indeed, in 1964, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater boasted of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and made it part of his platform.

It was right around this time when figures like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond made the transition — leaving the progressive, diverse, tolerant Democratic Party for the GOP.

In the years that followed, Democrats embraced their role as the party of inclusion and civil rights. Republicans, meanwhile, became the party of the “Southern Strategy,” opposition to affirmative action, campaigns based on race-baiting, vote-caging, discriminatory voter-ID laws, and politicians like Helms and Thurmond. (A Republican congressman from Texas named Ron Paul also criticized Abraham Lincoln for waging the Civil War, while also opposing the Civil Rights Act.)

Paul’s remarks emphasized Democratic tactics in the South, and the observations aren’t wrong — Southern Democrats were, for generations after the Civil War — on the wrong side.

The problem, however, is with the relevance of the observation. Which matters more in contemporary politics: that white supremacists were Southern Democrats or that white supremacists made a new home in the Republican Party in the latter half of the 20th century?

Democrats have no reason to sweep this history under the rug: they eventually got it right, and dispatched the racists and segregationists to the GOP, which welcomed them and their racial attitudes. Indeed, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee conceded just a few years ago that his party deliberately used racial division for electoral gain for the last four decades. (This includes, by the way, Ronald Reagan.)

By Rand Paul’s reasoning, voters should care less about the last four decades, and more about the Democratic Party’s divisions four generations ago. I’m afraid that’s backwards.

If history ended in the 1960s, Paul may have a slightly more legitimate point. But given what we’ve seen over the last half-century, the more salient point is that Dems have been part of the solution on race, and the GOP has been part of the problem.

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4 Comments

  1. Rand Paul should put his money where his mouth is by addressingtoday’s GOP on matters of race and civil rights.

    Fully 87 percent of those who identify themselves as Republicans or Republican-leaners are white in 2012 Pew polling. Could it be policies such as a concerted GOP push for voter ID laws and voting hours restrictions that clearly impact the African-American community disproportionately?

    Explain this, Mr. Paul.

    Senator Paul’s father Ron said in 2004, in reference to the Civil Rights Act, “it increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty.”

    Rand addressed his father’s statement seven years later: “It’s not all about race relations, it’s about controlling property, ultimately.”

    He applied this theme to desegretaing lunch counters in the 60’s by wondering, “Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?”

    As Jonathan Chait wrote 11 months ago, “The pseudo-historical attempt to attach conservatism to the civil rights movement is just silly. Here’s another idea: Why not get behind the next civil rights idea (gay marriage) now? It would save future generations of conservative apparatchiks from writing tendentious essays insisting the Republican Party was always for it.”

  2. What a buffoon trying to address Howard University on black history and politics. Just tell them what you believe in and what policies you’re trying to legislate. The students will figure it out.

  3. Steverino, all this guy is qualified to lecture on is hair gel, silver spoons, and settling malpractice claims out of court.

  4. Oh, and which brand of diaper is best when planning an 11-hour drone drone.

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