In 2010, Paul had made a spirited, libertarian critique of the Act's implementation, was swiftly accused of racism, and forever changed the way he talks about these things.
On Wednesday morning, he was talking past the audience. To a viewer at home—a Fox News viewer, maybe—it was enough that Paul was there and a bonus that he got heckled. “Republicans do, indeed, still believe many rights remain with the people and states respectively,” said Paul. “When some people hear that, they tune us out and say: He’s just using code words for the state’s right to discriminate, for the state’s right to segregate and abuse. But that’s simply not true. Many Republicans do believe that decentralization of power is the best policy, that government is more efficient, more just, and more personal when it is smaller and more local.”
Republicans don’t understand why this message fails to grip black voters. It didn’t grip the crowd at Howard. Heckler aside, the room sat silent as Paul expounded on the Democrats’ pre-1964 record on race, from one obscure bigot to another. No one applauded until Paul got to some actual policy. “I am working with Democratic senators to make sure that kids who make bad decisions such as nonviolent possession of drugs are not imprisoned for lengthy sentences,” said Paul. “I am working to make sure that first time offenders are put into counseling and not imprisoned with hardened criminals.” Barack Obama and George Bush did drugs, after all, and they turned out okay because they got “lucky.”
Paul was on to something, but it didn’t last. “Some argue with evidence that our drug laws are biased—that they are the new Jim Crow,” he said. “But to simply be against them for that reason misses a larger point. They are unfair to everyone.”
Why’d Paul go there? “I think everyone in this room has read The New Jim Crow,” said Evan Rogers, a sophomore. The 2012 book by Michelle Alexander argued that a “colorblind consensus” had created a new caste system, with countless African-Americans ruined for life after committing minor felonies. “As a criminal,” she wrote, “you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.” And here Paul, who wields hyperbole like a pro to campaign against spy drones, was telling people to stop invoking Jim Crow. Paul told one student who fretted about Republican voter ID bills that he “demean[ed] the horror” of poll tests.
But this was savvy. When he left the campus, past the students still holding the “White Supremacy” banner and conducting interviews, Paul remained the Republican most likely to reform mandatory minimums. He remained the most prominent Republican supporter of drug law reform. He wouldn’t apologize for the Republican Party, or for libertarianism, or for that 2010 interview about the Civil Rights Act. “Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent?” he said then. “Should we limit racists from speaking?” Now, he was offering African-Americans some accommodation, from time to time.
“I think he’s the best chance we have to win in 2016,” said Michael Davis, a 1979 graduate of Howard’s law school and current Republican activist. He’d delayed a trip to the RNC’s annual meeting in order to see Paul—“this was more important.” He did so even though he disagreed completely with Paul on civil rights. Businesses weren’t as “enlightened” as Paul wished them to be.
“But, you know, I traveled to Europe with Dan Quayle,” said Davis. “I think about the bad rap he got over ‘potatoe.’ He never shook that. But other politicians have made these kinds of errors and they’ve thrived.”