Thursday, May 20, 2010

Rand Paul and Civil Rights

[Cross-posted at dotCommonweal]

Rand Paul has been making waves for his criticism of the Civil Rights Act of 1964's prohibition of discrimination in places of public accommodation. Title II of the CRA makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race (and a number of other grounds) at establishments like restaurants, movie theaters, etc. Paul's timing is interesting, since this year is the 50th anniversary of the lunch-counter sit-ins, which really put the public accommodation question on the civil rights agenda in early 1960. Although fairly controversial at the time, the idea that private owners cannot exclude from places of public accommodation (i.e., businesses that they have opened to, for the most part, all comers) has become part of the legal furniture of our lives. I would guess that only a tiny number of Americans at this point think that private business owners have the right to hang a sign in their window saying "whites only," but apparently Rand Paul does. If he were elected, I'd wager he'd be the only member of the United States Senate who has openly expressed opposition to Title II in the past 30 years.

Of course, it's almost certainly true that very few business owners these days would put out a "whites only" sign, at least if they wanted to remain in business for long, but that is almost certainly a testament to the success of Title II (among other things) in changing norms about the propriety of racial discrimination. And, of course, stories of more subtle or ad hoc forms of racial exclusion from places of public accommodation are fairly easy to come by. So it would be wrong to think that the law does not have something important to contribute. In addition, there is no doubt that employment discrimination (prohibited by Title VII) continues to be a problem in the United States, as well racial discrimination in private housing markets (prohibited by the Fair Housing Act, aka Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968). I hope folks in the press will ask Paul what he thinks about those provision, which libertarians have also criticized as infringements on the rights of property owners and employers.

Listening to Paul on NPR last night, what struck me most was his inarticulate ignorance. He admitted that he had little idea what was actually in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I doubt he has much idea about the history behind it or the impact that private discrimination in places of public accommodation. If he's interested in boning up, he might want to start with this documentary. Notwithstanding his admitted lack of information, he steadfastly refused to say he supported the prohibition of discrimination in places of public accommodation. It will be interesting to see how mainstream conservatives respond to this.

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