Rand Paul Exposes Dangers of Colorblind Thinking

Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul has drawn a great deal of recent attention for his comments that had he been in the Senate in 1964, he would have argued against key portions of the Civil Rights legislation under discussion. In his own words:

“I’m not in favor of any discrimination of any form. I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race. We still do have private clubs in America that can discriminate based on race.

But I think what’s important in this debate is not getting into any specific ‘gotcha’ on this, but asking the question ‘What about freedom of speech?’ Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent? Should we limit racists from speaking? I don’t want to be associated with those people, but I also don’t want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that’s one of the things that freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized, but that doesn’t mean we approve of it.

Well what it gets into then is if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says ‘Well no, we don’t want to have guns in here’ the bar says ‘We don’t want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each-other.’ Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant? These are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion…”

As his statements, made first to a local newspaper, repeated on NPR, and quoted here from an interview on MSNBC, make clear, Paul’s argument is not that he is opposed to the entire Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nor does he contend that he, as an individual, personally would engage in discriminatory actions or behaviors. In fact, in his interviews (and follow up ones designed to minimize the political fallout from his statements) he has explicitly stated that he does not consider himself a racist and abhors racist behaviors (although there’s some evidence suggesting otherwise). He does, however, believe that the federal government overreaches when it attempts to place any curtails on private businesses, and has articulated this belief on several occasions and in various contexts. Thus, in keeping with libertarianism, he is ideologically opposed to any federal government legislation that purports to interfere with private enterprise, even if that private enterprise engages in racial, gender, or any type of discrimination that would be illegal in the public sector.

Rand Paul’s statements illustrate more clearly than any academic exercise ever could the dangers associated with what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes as colorblind ideology. In recent work, Bonillla-Silva argues that racialized social systems are comprised of economic, social, political, legal, and ideological structures that maintain racial hierarchies (and inequalities). He argues that in modern society, the mechanisms that maintain racial hierarchies are much less visible and overt than in previous generations. Thus, segregation is no longer codified and legally protected, but it still exists in educational and residential settings due to more covert processes like white flight and gentrification. Correspondingly, the dominant racial ideology in many public settings is a colorblind one, where whites (and some people of color) purport not to notice, observe, or think about race or racial issues. Conveniently, this reluctance to acknowledge race means there is no need to address whites’ racial privilege and/or the ensuing racial inequality that results. As Bonilla-Silva argues, those who use the colorblind ideology are able to employ a discourse where they take no notice of the processes that maintain various forms of racial inequality, and can thus comfortably state their opposition to any efforts to rectify them.

When Rand Paul takes libertarian ideology to its logical conclusions, he reveals the ways in which colorblindness works to maintain a racially unjust status quo. If the central tenet of libertarianism is no federal government oversight of the private market, then the logical conclusion of that idea is that the federal government should not involve itself in legislating constraints on private businesses, even if this leads to practices like racial discrimination.  The consequence of this ideological argument, however, is that it maintains a larger system where racial discrimination goes on unchecked.

If private enterprises are legally permitted to discriminate, history shows us quite clearly that they will. In fact, a cursory review of social science literature and recent news stories reveals that even with discrimination illegal in the present day, some private businesses still manage to practice it.  It was only a short while ago that black children were sent home from a private pool in Pennsylvania because they were “changing the complexion.”

So, when Rand Paul endorses a libertarian ideology that champions minimal or nonexistent federal oversight of the free market, he either ignores or doesn’t care about the fact that in the U.S., that “free market” he longs to protect has never been all that “free” for people of color. As Joe Feagin argues with his expansion of the legal concept of “unjust enrichment,” many white-owned businesses engaged in protected “free market” practices have built their wealth off of the appropriated, often forced labor of people of color. Strongly enforced anti-discrimination laws would have been beneficial to black Americans excluded from jobs, Chinese immigrant workers who were routinely paid less than their white counterparts, Japanese American citizens snatched from their homes and livelihoods and interned in concentration camps, Native Americans whose residential and economic isolation helps to make them disproportionately represented among the nation’s poorest, as well as a host of other groups.

But a colorblind libertarian perspective ignores the embedded racialized inequities of the private market and pretends that it is simply neutral, objective, and beneficial to all. Case in point: the libertarian counterargument—that those denied services in discriminatory private markets are free to take their business elsewhere or establish their own—also ignores the deep structural racial inequities that shape U.S. society. In other words, black patrons who are, en masse, discriminated against at white-owned businesses do not live in a society where they have equal access to banks, capital, and other resources that allow them to build competing structures. This has never been the case. By design, the United States has never been a place where black businesses have flourished by relying on both the forced labor of whites and black-dominated federal, state, and local governments that legitimize such racially unbalanced labor practices. Instead, when discrimination is legal in the U.S., blacks simply become an economically disadvantaged, socially subordinate, politically marginalized minority group in society. This isn’t academic speculation; it is a recounting of the facts of U.S. history during the era where public and private discrimination was legal.  These facts still have an impact racial disparities in health, education, income, and wealth to this day.

Finally, when Rand Paul says that “these are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion,” he shows how colorblind ideology ignores the real ramifications racism has for various groups, particularly those who are targeted by racist practices. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he meant that the conversation he was having with Rachel Maddow was “not very practical” because, as he went on to say the next day, the Civil Rights Act is settled law and (hopefully) not likely to be repealed.

However, even if Paul was simply engaging in theoretical exercise and discussing the logical ends of libertarian philosophy, he still reveals a profound ignorance of the realities and impact of racial discrimination on real human beings and his fellow citizens.  There are plenty of people still alive today who have first-hand experience of  legally enforced segregation and discrimination.   For those citizens who lived through segregation and struggled against it to see the triumph of the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, to now hear a candidate for U.S. Senate blithely suggest that on ideological grounds, he opposes the legislation that protects their legal right to be served in restaurants, hotels, gas stations, educational facilities, and any other privately owned entity must feel as though they’ve stepped back in time.

At best, Rand’s theoretical opposition is callously insensitive to the lived experiences and collective memory of his fellow Americans. It also underscores the perils of pretending that colorblindness in a racially stratified society is an ideologically equitable position.