When It’s Racist, Say So

The current political efforts of extremist conservatives and Tea Party leaders to challenge basic U.S. human rights smacks of rank racism, write Sam Fulwood III and Henry Fernandez.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul is shown during an interview at his campaign headquarters after winning his party's primary election in Bowling Green, KY. Paul says that a 1964 Civil Rights Act provision strikes him as unconstitutional because it infringes on white business owners' rights to exclude black patrons from their establishments. (AP/Ed Reinke)
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul is shown during an interview at his campaign headquarters after winning his party's primary election in Bowling Green, KY. Paul says that a 1964 Civil Rights Act provision strikes him as unconstitutional because it infringes on white business owners' rights to exclude black patrons from their establishments. (AP/Ed Reinke)

The current political efforts of some conservative and Tea Party leaders smack of rank racism. Yes, that’s strong language, but there’s no other way to describe their odious behavior. It harkens back more than a half century ago, recalling the white segregationists’ efforts to stop the unstoppable civil rights movement. No one has brought out the fire hoses and German shepherds . . . yet.

But the language is sickly familiar. Right-wing extremists talk of state’s rights and loss of freedom and, most disgustingly, “taking back our country.” That’s the language of the disgraced, of 1960s racist reactionaries such as Alabama police officer Bull Connor, Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus.

It’s the infamous southern strategy redux, which was developed by Richard Nixon, perfected by Republican political strategist Lee Atwater, and exploited by his acolyte Karl “Bush’s Brain” Rove. Now here comes Kentucky GOP Senate hopeful Rand Paul, a darling of the Tea Party movement, who boldly told several audiences, including his state’s leading newspaper, that a provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act struck him as unconstitutional because it infringes on the rights of white business owners to exclude black patrons from their establishments.

Not content with making that racist faux pas—he tried to back track, at least initially—he followed it up with an endorsement of a nascent right-wing-inspired move to end birthright citizenship. This is yet another of the backward-looking wedge issues pushed by conservative extremists, including 90 House Republicans who co-sponsored last year legislation that seeks to rewrite the Constitution by denying citizenship to children born in the United States.

More recently Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, the lawmaker behind that state’s impending immigration law that would racially profile citizens to weed out undocumented residents, proposed ending birthright citizenship in his state. His aim? To prevent citizenship for those he calls “anchor babies,” a virulently nasty term for U.S.- born children of immigrants. (Pearce’s intent is not too hard to figure out when one considers his palling around with neo-Nazis, anti-Semitic emails, and the drafting of his anti-Latino laws by the legal arm of a Washington, D.C. think tank exposed by Rachel Maddow and the Southern Poverty Law Center as founded and funded by white supremacists.)

Kentucky’s Paul embraced this racist tactic shortly after winning his GOP primary race. In an interview with a Russian television station, Paul declared his support for federal legislation to deny citizenship to immigrant babies even if they’re born on U.S. soil. “We’re the only country I know of that allows people to come in illegally, have a baby, and then that baby becomes a citizen,” Paul said, obviously unaware that many nations including Canada, Mexico, and Brazil grant citizenship at birth. “And I think that should also stop.”

That truth defies Paul’s position is incontrovertible. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution says it plainly: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” That’s the same Constitution that conservative extremists now want back. Well, in their own words: “Read the law.”

And before we get any crazy Internet-inspired legal interpretations of the word “jurisdiction,” the Supreme Court laid this to rest way back in 1898 when ugly laws were trying to keep Chinese immigrants out of our country. In U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark the Supreme Court found that no state or Congress can make any law that denies the rights of citizenship to someone born here based on their parents’ country of origin.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act is equally settled law. That the federal government can stop discrimination in businesses that serve the public is now unquestioned following a myriad of definitive court cases. We have no doubt that Rosa Parks would not have been satisfied with Paul’s twisted rationalization for allowing racism if she had faced such barbed rhetoric while refusing to give up her seat in the “whites” section of a public bus in Alabama in 1965.

Paul argues that as a libertarian, he believes that the bus company had the right to require Parks to remain seated in the back, but he would never condone racial discrimination. Fortunately, the majority Republican Kentucky Senate rebuked Paul’s view of America, voting unanimously last week for a resolution introduced by its sole African-American member, rejecting “any attempt to retreat from the guarantees provided by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States [and] the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . . ..”

Yes, America has beautifully moved on from the claptrap of defending segregation, and we are aware of no legitimate interest by any business group to stop Americans of any color from buying their products or sitting in their establishments. This renders Paul’s comments about opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and repealing parts of the 14th Amendment all the more odd and curious. Those aren’t practical proposals because they have no hope of passing constitutional muster or, we pray, close public scrutiny. So why then is Paul citing libertarian theory on nonissues?

Well, facts and logic suffer in competition with the emotional tug of racism. It’s tried and tested political theory: Go rogue and racist to gin up latent fears of an angry, activated base in low-turnout elections. Clearly, the strategy is to use not-so-subtly coded race talk to drive knuckle draggers to the polls in November.

As Paul told the Russian television audience, it’s politics and “demographics.” He said the real problem he fears is if the country gives so many brown-skinned people a fair and streamlined path to citizenship they will become Democrats by a 3-to-1 margin. “The Democrat Party is for easy citizenship,” he said.

Who knows what America will be like with more brown and black voters? African Americans and until very recently Latinos were historically swing voters. But the Republican southern strategy ended all but a smidgen of black support for the Republican party by the 1970s while anti-immigrant rhetoric in the nativist wing of the party in the 2000s meant Obama scored 27 points better among Latinos than Kerry did just four years earlier.

But for some extremist legislators, the fear of payback is a terrifying old dog. Never mind that such thinking is political suicide in the long term for conservatives. They imagine they can hold back the demographic tide sweeping across this nation with short-term laws that inevitably will be cast aside. By the year 2050 demographers estimate the United States will no longer be a majority white nation. The majority of the electorate will have darker skins.

Indeed, the overwhelming majority of young Latinos are citizens and they represent one in five of all children under 18. They will grow up to vote, marry each other and Americans of all other ethnic backgrounds, and create a game-changing voting bloc, especially in the Southwest. That’s the lesson of the civil rights movement that extremist conservatives and Tea Party folks really fear. Just as black voters across the South elected local and state representatives in a wave that helped pave the way for an Obama administration, more changes are on the way no matter what Paul and his ilk think.

Evidence of this is already clear in many cities and states. And yes, this simple, observable fact is the driving angst that fuels racist talk among extremist conservatives. This is what they really mean when they exclaim a desire to “take back our country.” Alas, there’s nothing they can practically do to forestall the inevitable browning of America.

In these so-called “postracial” days, when a black man makes international decisions from the Oval Office, a Latina sits in judgment on the Supreme Court, and African-American celebrities are role models and trendsetters for white suburban kids, it’s considered gauche to say that racists still walk among us. Branding people or their behavior as racist is considered a nuclear no-no, politically speaking. And that explains why we’ve heard so few progressive political leaders push back against the dog-whistle racism embedded in conservative prattle.

But they should, says Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University who has done extensive research in how to illuminate and negate the racial tactics of extremists. “You don’t begin a conversation by saying ‘You’re a racist, now let’s talk,’” he often says in public forums. “The average American doesn’t want to appear to be racist and will stop listening as soon as you call them one.”

But that’s no reason to rollover and play dead, either. “We must attack their use of racially coded language early and often,” he said during a recent presentation to congressional staffers. “All too often, those on the left have done nothing and allowed such language to fester and go unchallenged.”

No more. We’re calling you out, Rand Paul.

Sam Fulwood III and Henry Fernandez are Senior Fellows at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

Henry Fernandez

Senior Fellow