Rand Paul Confronts the GOP's Race Problem

As the 2016 contender, GOP libertarian spokesman, and son of Ron prepares to give a speech at Howard University about the history of black voters and the Republican Party, it's impossible not to be curious about which story he decides to tell: the one in which the GOP just forgot to campaign for black votes, or the one in which the GOP made a bad bet on racism and is trying to fix it.

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Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul will give a speech Wednesday at Howard University, the historically black college, about the history of black voters and the Republican Party. It will be interesting to see what version of GOP history Paul decides to tell. Since the 2012 election, Republicans have been looking to reach out to minority voters, but can sometimes show a bit of denial as to why their party gets so little of the minority vote in the first place. The Kentucky senator, who has said he's interested in running for president in 2016, makes a great case study. "I think sometime aways back we quit showing up and asking African Americans for their vote," Paul told Business Insider's Grace Wyler. Perhaps he could ask his father to clarify what happened.

Since the 2012 election, the GOP has been trying to figure out how to appeal to minority voters, following many failed attempts in just the last 10 years. But a fascinating aspect of this conversation within conservatism is that conservatives don't always want to talk about why that outreach is difficult. The most shocking moment was at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, in which a panel titled "Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist and You Know You're Not One?" was about how the GOP was the party that really supported civil rights. A segregationist then tried to correct the speakers, telling me he favored the GOP because Republicans supported segregationists in the 1960s and 1970s. "Trump the Race Card" was not making a novel argument! Kevin Williamson made the same case in a National Review cover story titled "The Party of Civil Rights" in May 2012. One bit of recent conservative history Williamson omitted was the time National Review founder William F. Buckley endorsed white supremacy.

It is that context that makes Rand Paul's speech at Howard so interesting. Paul has taken over the job of spokesman for the libertarian wing of the Republican Party from his dad, Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who ran for president three times. Ron Paul also tried to reach out to black voters by attacking the way we implement our drug laws. "True racism in this country is in the judicial system," Paul said during a January 2012 presidential primary debate. "The percentage of people who use drugs are about the same with blacks and whites. And yet the blacks are arrested way disproportionately." Rand Paul's Wednesday speech will also address what he, too, sees as drug laws that hurt black people, as well as school choice, which he thinks would help black kids get better educations.

But the reason Ron Paul was forced to speak out on issues affecting black people is that he was getting a lot of criticism for making tons of money by publishing really racist newsletters two decades earlier. Here's a tiny sample:

As early as December 1989, a section of his Investment Letter, titled “What To Expect for the 1990s,” predicted that “Racial Violence Will Fill Our Cities” because “mostly black welfare recipients will feel justified in stealing from mostly white ‘haves.’” Two months later, a newsletter warned of “The Coming Race War,” and, in November 1990, an item advised readers, “If you live in a major city, and can leave, do so. If not, but you can have a rural retreat, for investment and refuge, buy it.” In June 1991, an entry on racial disturbances in Washington, DC’s Adams Morgan neighborhood was titled, “Animals Take Over the D.C. Zoo.” “This is only the first skirmish in the race war of the 1990s,” the newsletter predicted.

Ron Paul's defense was that the newsletters were a cynical exploitation of racist whites — his staff repeatedly said Paul did not write and maybe did not read his newsletters. His staff did not claim he didn't profit from them.

Rand Paul didn't have anything warning of a "race war" published under his name. But he had to deal with his own flirtation with appealing to unenlightened southerners. As National Journal's Elahe Izadi explains:

While running for Senate in 2010, Paul’s comments that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in forcing private businesses not to racially discriminate created a firestorm. He had to scramble to clarify that he supports the Civil Rights Act and is against segregation in public spaces, and by the next day, he seemed to reverse his position on discrimination by private entities.

So when Paul speaks about the "history of the Republican Party and African American voters," as his staff described his speech last week, it will be impossible not to be curious about which story he decides upon: the one in which the GOP just forgot to campaign for black votes, or the one in which the GOP made a bad bet on racism and is trying to fix it.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.