Excerpt from article by Ian Haney López, Bill Moyers.com
Paul presents overweening government power — especially at the federal level — as the paramount threat to ordinary Americans. If he is to popularize this message, though, Paul has to face an ugly fact: libertarianism has attracted substantial popular support not despite its occasional association with racists, but because of its ugly racial undertones.
Where white supremacists once commandeered government to enforce their appalling vision, the civil rights movement recruited government to promote integration. Government efforts to outlaw discrimination and to promote inclusion in schools, workplaces and neighborhoods became key to the effort to move the country toward racial equality.
But in response, libertarian ideas flourished, for anti-government rhetoric provided a seemingly neutral basis for opposing “race mixing.”
Pioneering this new use of libertarian rhetoric in his 1964 campaign, the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater endorsed “states’ rights,” ostensibly a position on federal-state relations, though at the time all understood the target was federal efforts to push school integration. Goldwater also championed “freedom of association,” which purported to preserve the rights of property owners to exclude whom they wished, though in practice this meant the right of white establishments to bar minorities.
Today’s libertarian politics descends directly from this tradition. Illustrating the continuity, as recently as 2010, Paul himself endorsed the “freedom of association” argument, criticizing the 1964 Civil Rights Act for unjustly limiting the rights of private property owners. Paul put his position most succinctly in anearlier criticism of the Fair Housing Act: “A free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination — even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin.”
To his credit, Paul has since renounced those positions and frequently proclaims his opposition to racial discrimination. But as his responses to the controversies surrounding his staffers suggest, he still has a long way to go. Paul must grapple with why his small-government message resonates with so many whites — and if, for a sizeable number, the motive is a continued opposition to integration, then Paul must face this squarely if he is to craft a more inclusive party.
If more Americans learn about our history, will it be possible to take the best intentions from libertarianism and push aside its roots in racial resentment? —Eric Byler
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