Rand Paul’s Patronizing, Self-Parodying Response To Black Lives Matter
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), in a statement that seems calculated to antagonize members of the Black Lives Matter movement, said on Fox News Wednesday night that the movement should “change their name, maybe” to something that does not emphasize concern with racial justice. He also suggested two alternatives: “All Lives Matter” and “Innocent Lives Matter.”
Members of the Black Lives Matter movement frequently object to the phrase “all lives matter,” at least when used as a response to their concerns, because this phrase ignores the burden of racism carried by African Americans that is not carried by whites in this country. Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley also upset Black Lives Matter protesters when he used this phrase in a response to them last month. As Black Lives Matter activist Julius Jones told Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton during a videotaped meeting, “there is an extremely long history of unfortunate government practices that don’t work that particularly affect Black people and Black families.”
Data bears out this claim. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, for example, the rate of police killings “for younger African Americans remain 4.5 times higher, and for older African Americans 1.7 times higher, than for other races and ages.” Black people make up 26 percent of police shootings but only 13 percent of the total American population.
Meanwhile, as Michelle Alexander explains in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, one of the Black Lives Matter movement’s foundational texts, “the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” In Washington, DC, an estimated “three out of four young black men . . . can expect to serve time in prison.” Yet, despite the fact that much of this mass incarceration of African Americans is driven by drug arrests, white people are actually “more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.” They just typically don’t go to prison for it.
The crux of the Black Lives Matter movement, in other words, is that it calls for an emphasis on injustices that are specifically racial in character. To suggest that it should be renamed “All Lives Matter” or something similarly race-neutral strips away this emphasis. And it fundamentally misunderstands what the movement hopes to accomplish. It’s as if someone said to Lilly Ledbetter, the unsuccessful Supreme Court litigant who became an icon in the movement to end pay discrimination against women, that she should drop her quest for equal pay and instead push for an across the board raise for herself and her colleagues. It may be true that some of Ledbetter’s male colleagues were also underpaid, but that does not diminish the indignity that comes from being treated differently because of a status one cannot control.
Paul, for his part, does not deny that our criminal justice system is, in many ways, broken. He’s co-sponsored legislation that would, among other things, restore voting rights to many people convicted of non-violent offenses. And he’s offered up his own libertarian approach to criminal justice as a way that Republicans can appeal to black voters. In his Fox interview, after he suggested that Black Lives Matter pick a new name, he emphasized that he’s “appeared with many members of the Congressional Black Caucus to talk about criminal justice” and that he’s “been to Howard University.”
Yet, despite Paul’s willingness to push criminal justice reform as a priority Republicans should embrace — and despite his desire to use his criminal justice proposals to entice African American voters into the GOP fold — Paul rejects the Black Lives Matter movement’s call for solutions that engage directly with the special burden carried by people of color. “Criminal justice, or the lack of criminal justice, it’s not a black or white problem,” Paul said at an historically black college last March. “It’s a poverty problem.”
Outside of the criminal justice context, moreover, Paul has been more skeptical of largely uncontroversial efforts to combat racism directly than any presidential candidate in decades. “A free society,” Paul wrote in 2002, “will abide unofficial, private discrimination even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin.” As a Senate candidate in 2010, he told the Louisville Courier-Journal’s editorial board that permitting whites-only lunch counters is “the hard part about believing in freedom.”
Thus, in many ways, Paul represents the antithesis of the Black Lives Matter movement. While movement activists are demanding that America confront racism directly, Paul has even expressed skepticism of the anti-racism measures enacted at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.