by Benjamin Jealous
Last night on the Rachel Maddow Show, I challenged Kentucky political hopeful Rand Paul to a debate. Mr. Paul has made headlines for his opposition to certain aspects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark legislation that outlawed racial segregation in voter registration, schools, workplaces and other public accommodations like hotels and restaurants.
The Civil Rights Act heralded the modern era of our nation's history; one in which race-based discrimination, on paper at least, was relegated to our history texts. It is a law that also doubles as a calling to our better nature.
In one sense I have got to hand it to Rand Paul. It takes some serious guts to publicly challenge such a cherished pillar of the modern American identity. Unfortunately, in the political arena, guts need to be tempered with brains as well.
Mr. Paul says that he supports all efforts to fight government-sponsored discrimination. He has no quibble with the end of segregation in public schools, for example, or in public-sector hiring. His only dispute is with desegregation of the private sector — the local merchants and lunch-counter operators whose speech rights were apparently encroached on by an overzealous federal government. In Mr. Paul's worldview, the free hand of the marketplace would have eventually forced most of those businesses to serve black folk anyway, because it was in their economic interest to do so.
The problem is that it never quite worked that way. Even after Jim Crow laws were overturned, those business establishments that bucked the system and served an integrated clientele faced threats, coercion and violence from a ruling class — a group made up not merely of local thugs, but of fellow business owners and, far too often, the local police force itself.
This was the point of federal intervention in the first place. The states and municipalities on the front lines of the desegregation movements were themselves the most likely to be institutionally corrupted by the cancer of racism. A relatively more objective outside party — the federal government — would have to serve as a mediating force.
Of course the story went far beyond potential corruption. Let's assume that we are dealing with a completely race-neutral local political environment. Society still relies on government enforcement — a police force — to enforce its laws. In Mr. Paul's world, a white gas station owner would be completely within his rights to deny service to a black family traveling on a holiday road trip. But say the family took a stand — refusing to leave the station until they were allowed to fill their tank or buy a snack. Do we honestly accept that it is the role of the municipal police force to step in and protect the owner's "right" to discriminate based on race? That they should arrest and charge the offending family for trespass?
The fact is that the world is far more complex than Mr. Paul's college dorm theoretical exercises would suggest.
Does Rand Paul defend, for example, the right of banks to not extend mortgages to people of color? Even in communities without other banks to compete? Should the government never be allowed regulate private business. Even for health and safety reasons? Honestly, I don't think Mr. Paul has thought these positions through very deeply. That is is why I have challenged him to study up on the subject and discuss them publically.
By winning his party's nomination to represent them in the Senate, Rand Paul has signed on to the big leagues. I say congratulations — let's talk about the issues. It is time for a debate.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is part of Change.org'sChangemaker network, a network comprised of leading voices for social change.