Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, told us last night why the flap over Senate candidate Rand Paul's views on the Civil Rights Act matter. Jealous said it's because the Kentucky Republican might actually, really hold them:
You know, this is very real. I mean, we had the Philly pool issue last summer and we still get complaints about pools at the NAACP. You know, we've got real issues right now about the federal regulation of banks. We've got the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in front of the Congress, and mistreated people on the basis of sexual orientation. This is a very live issue.
And, you know, the fear with Rand Paul is that what he said in 2002, what he said to NPR, what he said to you, is how he feels. And now, he's very quickly learning how to be a candidate and he's trying to, you know, flip-flop. But, you know, he`s been consistent over time and that's deeply worrying.
Paul's interview with us on Wednesday provided a kind of tuning-fork moment, when we could suddenly hear an issue that's vibrating inside American politics. There's intellectual motion, there's belief, there's strongly held, often surprising views that no one really wants to talk about, that no one really hears. They're there, but we don't hear them until all of a sudden something happens. And everybody freaks out.
Rand Paul's particular beef with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has to do with Title II, which states, "All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations of any place of public accommodation as defined in this section without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion or national origin."
In practical terms, this means that any private business -- a hotel, a motel, a restaurant, a lunch counter, a theater, a concert hall, a stadium -- that offers services to the general public cannot discriminate. Among many example's, it ended Woolworth's lunch counters' practice of only serving white people.
The reason we talk about this chapter in our country's history as the fight for civil rights is because it was a fight. There was the Civil Rights movement, activists, pushing for equal access to the rights and privileges of citizenship for black Americans, and there was another side that was pushing back.
The violence of mobs and Klansmen is what we all remember about that era, but there was also a very fervent intellectual and political side to the pro-segregation forces --people like William F. Buckley, founder of the modern conservative movement. In 1957, Mr. Buckley wrote this about the civil rights struggle: "The question that emerges is whether the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is yes. The white community is so entitled because for the time being, it is the advanced race."
Mr. Buckley said he later regretted arguing that. And now Rand Paul brings a different angle of the old argument to light, that the right of private property owners to discriminate trumps the right of customers not to be discriminated against. You can say as Rand Paul did last night that you don't support the violence and racism, the people who were actually physically beating Civil Rights demonstrators while they were fighting against segregation. Who would say they side with that?
But do you think they had a point regardless of how those people beating the protesters tried to make it? Do you side with the intellectuals, with the politicians, who weren't throwing the punches and murdering people but who did argue that private business has the right to discriminate and the government is wrong to stop it?
Apparently we don't all agree that when the federal government decided in 1964 that it would stop private businesses from discriminating on the basis of race, that was a good thing. And beyond race, if there is a bright dividing line between private and public, can businesses refuse to serve Jews, too? Baptists?
Are fire codes unconstitutional? How about the minimum wage? Does the government have the right to tell B.P. that it ought to use safety technology to prevent spills when it drills offshore? Is it unconstitutional overreach to tell liquor stores they can't sell liquor to kids? Can the government inspect meat? Should it say you can't put lead in those pacifiers you're manufacturing?
Libertarian is not a five-syllable shorthand word for Republican. It is a really specific worldview about the appropriate reach of federal law in this country.
And when you are auditioning for a role as part of the federal government's highest law-making body, which makes laws for everyone in
this country, questions about what you believe is the appropriate reach of federal law ought to be expected. The answers sometimes reopen debates that no one anywhere near the mainstream of American politics had any idea were still controversial.