As most of you probably know, Rand Paul made a speech and answered questions at Howard University yesterday in an attempt to “reach out” to black voters on behalf of the GOP. Predictably, the topic of Paul’s (presumed) position on the Civil Rights Act again surfaced as a result. I confess that I’ve always found this controversy rather puzzling. Consider the following two propositions:
1. A citizen should be allowed to promote white supremacy and racial segregation in a personal blog, in a book, in flyers that he hands out on street corners, to his children, or among his neighbors at weekly meetings at his home
2. A citizen should be allowed to refuse service to non-whites at his store
I find it incredibly odd that believing #1 is considered normal, enlightened, and mainstream, while believing #2 is considered crazy at best and mega-, KKK/slave-owning/Django-level racist at worst. In fact, judging from the controversy over Paul’s stance, I think many or most people believe that it is totally impossible to believe #2 without being racist. Don’t get me wrong; I can easily imagine a reasonable set of beliefs that would lead a person to agree with #1 and disagree with #2. However, I can’t imagine how everyone seems to believe the following
3. #1 is obviously true and everyone should believe so, and #2 is obviously false, and anyone who disagrees is either evil or being willfully ignorant.
I can think of two reasons why a person might confidently believe that #2 is false. Unfortunately, neither of these theories explain the widespread belief in #3.
First, a person might believe that there is substantial empirical evidence that allowing businesses to discriminate leads to measurable, severely negative consequences for minorities. He might be armed with, for example, lots of robust time series analysis showing that many measures of the socio-economic health of black Americans took an especially sharp turn upward at the time the Civil Rights Act went into effect and that there was no other contemporaneous event that could plausibly explain the changes. However, this clearly doesn’t explain #3′s popularity because such evidence almost certainly doesn’t exist, and even if it does, only a tiny fraction of the population has ever looked at it or could understand it. Furthermore, this wouldn’t explain why a person in possession of such evidence would be so compelled to endorse #1. How could he be sure that banning the kinds of activities described in #1 wouldn’t also substantially improve the economic status of minorities?
Second, a person might disagree with #2 because he simply thinks racism is such an intrinsic moral evil that we should do all that we can do to eradicate it from our society, regardless of the potential consequences. However, it seems a person with this attitude would be especially likely to disagree with #1 as well.
More reasonable, I think, is to conclude that almost nobody’s attitude toward #1 or #2 is based on any kind of ratiocination. Through a combination of historical accident and the all-powerful status quo bias, endorsing #1 has become a way to express to others that you, too, value freedom, and rejecting #2 has become a way of expressing that you, too, think racism is bad. If you hold these beliefs, then you’re part of our “group”.
So, for whatever else can be said for or against Rand Paul, the knee-jerk condemnation he has drawn on this issue is rooted in base, irrational tribalism rather than an enduring love for minorities or the downtrodden.