Ponder What Isn't Mocked as Racially Unenlightened in America

What's most racially "cringe-worthy," Rand Paul's speech at Howard, Stop and Frisk, or indefinite detention?
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Surveying the criticism of Rand Paul's speech at Howard University, Freddie deBoer writes, "There are many ways to criticize the stuff he said. Just about the worst way to do it is to snark around, giggling and hawing at the rube from Kentucky in a way that makes your disagreement seem cultural rather than substantive." That barb is aimed at Chris Hayes, who has distinguished himself on cable news for avoiding its pathologies, but failed in this case to meet his own high standards.

Here's his coverage:

Hayes is right to criticize Paul for trying to elide bygone controversies about his position on the Civil Rights Act, a subject he won't be able to escape, and had better learn to talk about more adeptly. He's right that Paul should've known Howard students would be more familiar with the people who founded the NAACP, though I don't think that's a failure that warrants derision. Hayes is on extremely shaky ground comparing the Paul speech unfavorably to "Accidental Racist." And despite finding the uncharacteristic tone in that clip as off-putting as DeBoer, Hayes' disciplined inclusion of caveats serves him well, permitting him to offer sound points inside a dubious frame that would've made the whole segment useless if Chris Matthews were working within it.

In fact, Hayes' best and main point is worth fleshing out. "Earnestness, as nice a trait as it is, and believe me, I know whereof I speak, is no substitute for a sophisticated understanding of how our past relates to the present or a commitment to policies that would bring about material improvement," he writes. "Contra Paul and Paisley, achieving racial progress in this country isn't just a matter of having the right conversations. It's about bringing about genuine equality. And if history has taught us one thing it's that equality comes from struggle, not from group hugs."

But conflating Paisley and Paul here is absurdly unfair.

Paul does not believe that achieving racial progress is "just a matter of having the right conversations" or "group hugs." His speech included specific citations of legal changes that were necessary for racial progress. "The bill of rights and the civil war amendments protect us against the possibility of an oppressive federal or state government," he stated. "There are occasions of such egregious injustice that require federal involvement, and that is precisely what the 14th amendment and the Civil Rights Act were intended to do-protect citizens from state and local tyranny."

He went on to state:

  • "A minister friend of mine in the West End calls school choice the civil rights issue of the day. He's absolutely right."

  • "I am working with Democratic senators to make sure that kids who make bad decisions such as non-violent possession of drugs are not imprisoned for lengthy sentences. I am working to make sure that first time offenders are put into counseling and not imprisoned with hardened criminals."

  • "Some argue with evidence that our drug laws are biased-that they are the new Jim Crow. But to simply be against them for that reason misses a larger point. They are unfair to EVERYONE, largely because of the one size fits all federal mandatory sentences.Our federal mandatory minimum sentences are simply heavy handed and arbitrary. They can affect anyone at any time, though they disproportionately affect those without the means to fight them."

This isn't hard. Paul believes minorities are disproportionately affected by failing schools, draconian sentences for non-violent crimes, and drug laws. He believes reforming those policy areas is required for racial progress, and also worth doing because people of all races would benefit. More broadly, he believes that protecting civil liberties is particularly crucial to protecting minority rights. Agree or disagree with his policy stances. But don't say, as Hayes does, that he believes achieving racial progress is just a matter of having the right conversations.

That is verifiably false.

The irony is that Hayes' segment and most coverage of race in the establishment media treats conversation about race -- it's earnestness, tone, and sophistication -- as a proxy far more important than hard fought policy changes. Awkward moments during a speech at Howard can get you labeled as hilariously backward about race in America in analysis that totally ignores your policy efforts.

Whereas Mayor Bloomberg, who has presided over Stop and Frisk and spying on innocent Muslim Americans, would never be labeled "worse than Braid Paisley on civil rights." And Barack Obama, who gave a superb speech about race in America, is judged, by virtue of his rhetorical sophistication, to be the epitome of enlightenment on the subject. Hayes is truly a vital voice, in part because (unlike many others on MSNBC) he consistently and admirably criticizes the Obama Administration for its transgressions against civil liberties. Insofar as there's any chance of stopping indefensible drone strikes or inane drug policies, it's because of people like Hayes, and I really can't overstate how much I appreciate that about his work. Yet he would not do a mocking, glib segment that portrayed Obama's outreach to blacks and Muslims as laughable and "cringe-inducing," no matter how badly Obama's policies transgressed against justice. That's because in America we cringe at awkward moments more than indefinite detention. Paul's rhetoric on race is thought to be more "unsophisticated" than Stop and Frisk.

Even people who criticize establishment abominations can't quite bring themselves to mock and ridicule them.

Ridicule is for folks outside the tribe.

The rest of the Paul-mocking media wouldn't criticize a Bloomberg or Obama on civil rights or racial policy at all, not because Bloomberg and Obama have more enlightened racial policies -- they're presiding over the ugliest of what we've got at the local and national levels -- but because Bloomberg and Obama know how to talk about race in the way it is done at liberal arts colleges. They'd be far better than Paul at being sensitivity trainers or diversity outreach coordinators.

I am not mocking those professions.

I am saying Paul would be better than Bloomberg at not harassing innocent Muslims with ethnic profiling, and much better than Obama at not killing innocent Muslims and then treating them as if they're "militants" simply because they're adult males killed by U.S. drone strikes. Still, Paul is widely regarded in liberal circles as obviously the most racially unenlightened of these politicians. So who is it that is treating rhetoric as if it's more important than the struggle for equality?

Whatever his flaws, it isn't Paul. And the fact that he is an object of mockery and ridicule while Obama and Bloomberg aren't itself sends a powerful signal about what is and isn't beyond the pale.

Update: Although it isn't close to Rand Paul level mockery, this clip of Hayes discussing Bloomberg's soda ban and how it relates to race shows a willingness to challenge and even point out the absurdity of Bloomberg on this subject that you wouldn't give him credit for if you just read my piece. So please do take a moment to watch it, and beware of underestimating Hayes, as I did, even despite my praise!

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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