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?

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.

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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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