The Journey to Mecca

Rand Paul deserves credit for speaking at Howard University. But one reason the reaction has been critical is that black liberals have high expectations for him.

Reason has a good video up looking at the cross-section of opinion which followed Rand Paul's visit to Howard University. (With Chad Bozeman out there doing work, it's a good time to be a Bison.) I offered some of my own thoughts on Friday's All In With Chris Hayes. Here are a few more.

1.) I've gone back and forth on this but I think Rand Paul deserves credit. These sorts of speeches are often done by conservatives as a way of signaling to moderate whites that they aren't racist. The Mitt Romney show at the 2012 NAACP convention is the best example.

I think Paul's was different. I can't remember a potential Republican presidential candidate standing before a group of black students like that and actually taking questions. And these were not plants. Paul got the full brunt of a school where black history and politics are the air.

2.) Someone should have told Rand Paul he was going to a school where black history and politics are the air. At a university founded by prominent 19th-century Republicans, where every student is subject to an African-American (studies, lit, history, etc.) requirement, you can not hope to surprise them with "Famous Black Republican Facts." They know this. And anyone so moved to attend a Rand Paul speech at Howard will almost certainly know it better than Rand Paul. (Edward Brooke!)

3.) The lack of someones is particularly telling. It's not so much that Rand Paul is a Republican that matters, it's his obvious lack of either good African-American advisers, or advisers who simply cared enough to do some recon. Someone who knew Howard could have told him that he was walking into a lion's den. This is the real and hard value of diversity, an area where, for at least the next decade, Dems will enjoy an advantage. They are better are talking to diverse audiences simply because they've had more practice. This isn't mission impossible. But to be good at talking to black people, you must talk to black people.

4.) This should not be a series of "speeches." Paul should go back to Howard and sit in on a couple of classes. He should just sit there and listen. I know he's a busy guy, but there is so much there that he clearly doesn't know. If he can't do it, he should send someone to do it. Better, he should hire a couple of smart kids out of Howard's poli-sci department who are sympathetic to his politics. (They are there.)

5.) Paul's answer to the Civil Rights Act question was deeply damaging. Nothing he did there hurt him more than outright lying. This is 2013. All these kids need do is google Rand Paul and Civil Rights Act to see what Paul actually said. It would be like Obama announcing his support for marriage equality, by claiming he'd always supported it. The worst part is he didn't even have to lie. A simple "I've learned a few things since becoming a senator" would have sufficed. Unforced error. Again, no one around Paul to say, "It's Howard. A third of SNCC went here. You are going to get this question. You must have a good answer."

6.) If you are a libertarian and dismayed by the largely critical reaction to Paul's speech, you should understand that much of it is because black liberals, like me, actually expect more of Rand Paul than we expected of Mitt Romney. Again, a lot of us have family whose politics are not very different from Rand Paul's. These are people who don't like foreign wars, who don't like our incarceration rates, and don't like our deficit.

These people are not me. But the fact that we end up voting for the same guy is a distortion of democracy. We deserve to fight it out. Having that fight doesn't require the GOP to fully embrace Obamacare. It requires the GOP to stop attempting to limit the number of people who are voting, and start competing for them. At this moment, the GOP has a choice. It can embrace the "Gifts" logic of Mitt Romney which holds that black people will never vote for a Republican, or it can make a pitch and compete.

Rand Paul -- skeptical of foreign war, skeptical of the drug war, skeptical of mass incarceration -- is the most credible Republican to make that pitch. We don't have any expectations for Steve King. Paul is different, and is being judged accordingly. You don't get to do something striking and courageous (like Paul's actual filibuster) and get judged by the standards of cowards.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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