Ron Paul’s non-answer about his racist attitudes towards black Americans during the New Hampshire GOP debate was a classic evasion. It was also a virtual admission of guilt.
Check and mate.
Ron Paul’s defenders have twisted themselves into all sorts of knots as they try to white wash these inconvenient facts. Their most common claim is that because Ron Paul supports ending the ruinous War on Drugs (with its well documented racial disparities in enforcement, imprisonment, and punishment), that he is a believer in racial equality. This is a symptom of a larger dynamic at work in post-Civil Rights era racial discourse
Primarily, the bar for what constitutes racism has been set so high that even the most obvious examples of racial animus have to be couched in careful terms lest an “innocent” white person be branded a bigot. Second, the definition of what constitutes “racism” has been narrowed down to include only bogeyman and caricatures of White wickedness, White hate, White sheets, White race pride tattoos, White hands holding nooses, and White hands burning crosses. And as an auxiliary-enabler of post-Civil Rights race discourse, the lazy newspeak of “playing the race card” was invented precisely to serve as a defense mechanism that exists only to enable such specious concepts as “white oppression” or “reverse racism.”
Of course, real life is much more complicated. Here, the argument that Ron Paul is not a racist because he wants to end the War on Drugs is a logical fallacy. Racist people can support policies that are “race neutral.” Racists can be “good people.” Anti-racists and progressives can be forward thinking in some areas and unrepentant bigots in others. And of course, while many are loathe to admit it, racism is a sin of both liberals and conservatives alike.
As I am so fond of saying, history is once more our greatest teacher. For example, there were abolitionists who wanted to end slavery and the vile trade in human beings, yet who also thought that black Americans were subhuman. There were abolitionists who urged blacks to rise up against the evils of the Southern slaveocracy, yet these same people thought that the presence of Africans in America was a problem to be solved by colonization because their presence was antithetical to white democracy.
Hinton Rowan Helper was one such figure. His 1868 work, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It,
was second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin
in its influence on the public imagination about the evils of chattel slavery. Helper was also an unrepentant white supremacist.
In every part of the United States, there is a broad and impassable line of demarcation between every man who has one drop of African blood in his veins, and every other class in the community. The habits, the feelings, all the prejudices of society, — prejudices which neither refinement, nor argument, nor education, nor religion itself, can subdue, — mark the people of color, whether bond or free, as the subjects of a degradation inevitable and incurable. The African in this’country belongs by birth to the very lowest station in society ; and from that station he can never rise, be his talents, his enterprise, his virtues what they may.” — African Repository , Vol. IV., page 118.
Even more pithy, Helper included how:
“‘The negro is not wholly without talents, but they are limited to imitation, — the learning of what has been previously known. He has neither invention nor judgment. Africans may be consid- ered docile, but few of them are judicious, and thus in mental qualities we are disposed to see a certain analogy with the apes, whose imitative powers are proverbial.’” — Burmeister’s Black Man, page 14.
Or how about this gem of common sense race science:
“So great a difference of opinion has ever existed upon the intrinsic value of the negro, that the very perplexity of the ques- tion is a proof that he is altogether a distinct variety. So long as it is generally considered that the negro and the white man are to be governed by the same laws and guided by the same management, so long will the former remain a thorn in the side of every community to which he may unhappily belong. When the horse and the ass shall be found to match in double harness, the white man and the African black will pull together under the same re- gime. It is the grand error of equalizing that which is unequal that has lowered the negro character, and made the black man a reproach.” — Baker’s Great Basin of the Nile, page 195.
People are complicated. One can be an abolitionist like Hinton Rowan Helper and believe that black humanity and personhood are sub-par, well below that of whites, and that African Americans have no place in American society. Ron Paul can be right on foreign relations and government waste for example, but dead wrong on matters of race, justice, and civil rights.
Such is life. Despite the temptations, there are no easy answers. Some in the American public will see Ron Paul’s racism as necessarily compromising his vision, ethics, and judgement more generally; it is a first order problem, not a mere inconvenience. For Ron Paul’s supporters, attitudes about black people are secondary to his libertarian vision for the United States. How a person reconciles this matter tells us a great deal about their own ethics and values.
On questions of race and justice the personal is indeed the political. The challenge here—and for libertarianism more broadly—is how these personal choices become impositions on the full citizenship, full rights, and full personhood of other people. To this point, Ron Paul’s version of libertarianism offers no satisfying answers for those who are not White, not privileged, and outside of the moneyed classes.
Is he a racist? I do not know. But the policies which Ron Paul advocates, and the philosophy which he subscribes to, are none too friendly to people of color. For me, that is enough of a disqualification.