Saturday, May 22, 2010

A contradiction of some note

This photo is in an SMU archive on the history of the Civil Rights Movement. This is what government defending private segregation looks like.

I've been watching the Rand Paul on civil rights law story develop since the Rachel Maddow interview last Wednesday evening. There was no doubt that in the initial interview, Mr. Paul simply tried, without success, to evade a straight-forward question concerning his views on a matter of law, to wit, the aspect of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which requires places of business to serve the public indiscriminately with regard to race (and some other characteristics of the public). Mr. Paul's view, which pundits describe as "libertarian" (though there's probably no "Book of Libertarian" from which we might compare), seems to be that Federal and State governments are overstepping their bounds when they tell private businesses what to do in this regard. Mr. Paul said, several times, that while he thought governments should not discriminate, it was part of a private entity's rights as a free and independent actor to operate as they chose. He also said that he, personally, would not discriminate on racial grounds, that he found such discrimination abhorent, and that the marketplace would likely deal negatively with businesses which did discriminate this way.

Dr. Paul's remarks were, as Ms Maddow understood at the time, evasions of her basic question. Dr. Paul never quite answered that question--should the part of the law concerning private business and segregation be repealed--although he has later in the week said he would not attempt to repeal that law. Dr. Paul has also suggested that the media generally, and Ms Maddow in particular, were being unfair and partisan, and apparently he will not grant further interviews at this time--a tack which puts him in the Palin camp re relations with the press. Dr. Paul noted wryly that his "honeymoon" was over pretty darn quick.

While some pundits have opined that the problem with Dr. Paul is that he is too much a philosopher to be running for office--Chris Matthews said that yesterday on "Hard Ball"--it seems to this old stone mason that Dr. Paul simply holds amongst his views about law and government, citizens and property ownership, a contradictory set of opinions. He stated the contradiction clearly in his conversation with Maddow. She actually even began to get a sense of it before the discussion concluded somewhat unsettled.

Yesterday on Digby's blog (which is linked over on the left here), Digby posted an account of a sit-in in Durham, NC, which occurred back in 1957. Basically, a number of black people entered an ice cream parlor (as they were called then) which was segregated, for white people only, asked for service, and would not leave when denied (as no doubt they expected to be). Police arrived and the black people were arrested for trespassing. They were later convicted, and paid the fines.

And thus is revealed the contradiction. Dr. Paul seems to think that he can separate government actions and private actions along this particular fault line--government should not be allowed to discriminate according to race (probably he's thinking about segregated schools), but private businesses such as restaurants can do as they wish. This was the tight rope he tried to navigate with Ms. Maddow, stating that he was fine with nine-tenths of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and only found the clause concerning private property odious.

There is an abstraction to Dr. Paul's analysis which cannot exist in the real world. For consider the 1957 Durham sit-in. There were two tacks for the property owner to take--call the police, i.e. the government, or pull out the baseball bats from under the counter. (Or they could have just seen that their existing policy was odious and changed it forthwith.) Dr. Paul explicitly in the Maddow interview rejected the latter course of action, the baseball bat approach. Law, therefore, is required in the enforcement of discriminatory practice. And, indeed, the folks sitting-in at the restaurant were convicted in court.

And this is why the 1964 Civil Rights Law was needed: to address activities occurring in private business. To make law so weak as to be unable to address such events as the sit-ins is to allow the community at large to make de facto standards based on power alone. For it is surely a fantasy to think that segregation will fail due to the market place's abhorence of such a practice. I grew up in segregated North Carolina. Indeed, I picketed segregated restaurants and movie theatres in Chapel Hill and Raleigh in 1963 (one one such night I was nearly run-over by an old highschool friend as I walked with our group of picketers back to the campus of Shaw University, where we'd left our automobiles). These businesses were doing just fine, economically speaking. In a more stark and tragic example, it was the general community of Philadelphia, MS, which enforced its segregated customs via the murders of Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodwin, which were accomplished by members of the police force acting in a more or less private capacity. Generally speaking, until the sit-ins began, black people mostly understood that if they objected to the various forms of segregation established by private businesses, they would be met with either physical force from the owners and patrons of an establishment, or arrest and physical force from the police, or both.

It was not state governments that required that private businesses be segregated. It was the businesses which required, for their segregated policies to be successful, that the governments cooperate, which of course they did.

It is important that we all understand where Dr. Paul's philosophy of governance fails, if we are to choose our elected officials wisely. It fails right here, where the rubber meets the road so to speak. While distinguishing between private property and government is well and good, in fact the two concepts are interwoven in real life in ways that cannot be untangled without great harm ensuing. Millions of American citizens were once enslaved, i.e., were considered a kind of private property owned by other American citizens. This idea was even enshrined in our basic laws. After the Civil War, the law began to change, but after Reconstruction the South was allowed to re-institute many aspects of second-class citizenship for black people. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was finally passed one-hundred years after Cold Harbor. Either the government is strong enough to enforce non-discriminatory rules concerning private business, or it will end up enforcing the discriminatory rules private business may choose to impose. That is the contradiction in Mr. Paul's philosophy.

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