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News Opinion

Rand Paul gets schooled at Howard

Rand Paul did just fine at Howard University, thank you very much. Or at least, that's how he remembers it.

Mr. Paul, GOP senator from Kentucky, told the Christian Science Monitor on Wednesday that his recent visit to Howard didn't go so bad at all. He said any perception to the contrary was created by -- all together now -- the "left-wing media."

Knowing what we do about the political right's capacity for self-deception, we may trust that he's telling it like it is -- or at least, telling it like he believes it to be.

But reality-based Americans know it wasn't left-wing media that insulted students at the historically black school by acting as if a visit to their campus was like a visit with headhunters. "Some have said that I'm either brave or crazy to be here," Mr. Paul said, somehow resisting the urge to add, "Me come-um in peace."

And it wasn't left-wing media that lied to those students. "I've never wavered in my support for civil rights or the Civil Rights Act," claimed Mr. Paul who, in fact, told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in 2010 that the act overreached in telling private businesses they could not discriminate against black people.

It wasn't left-wing media that told those students, "I want a government that leaves you alone," somehow neglecting the fact that, had government left their grandparents alone, those kids would still be legally required to feed their money into the colored-only slot of the Coca-Cola machine.

Finally, it wasn't left-wing media that condescended to those students, at one point telling them, "If I were to have said, 'Who do you think the founders of the NAACP are?' would everyone in here know they were all Republicans?"

"Of course they would," one woman grumbled.

Indeed. Any first-year history student would know that. But they'd also know the Republicans are not the same party now that they were prior to 1968, when they essentially traded ideologies with the Democrats and inherited from them all those disaffected white Southern voters who were mortally offended by the aforementioned Civil Rights Act and its sequel, the Voting Rights Act.

And would someone please tell Mr. Paul and any other Republican planning "outreach" to African-Americans that if you must go back 104 years (the NAACP was founded in 1909) for examples of solidarity with black folks, it kind of illustrates the problem?

For decades, the Democratic Party has commanded the African-American vote. Yet, the Obama phenomenon aside, this dominance seems not to reflect love for the party so much as the fact that the Democrats are all that is left once the GOP has effectively removed itself from contention.

But let the record show that, as Mr. Paul had to reach back to 1909 to show solidarity with black folks, the Democrats themselves are still living on the 50-year-old fumes of Lyndon Johnson's legacy. So there is no reason the GOP cannot command a portion of the black vote.

To do that, it must repudiate its own recent legacy of bigotry. Stop acting as if going to Howard University is like traveling into the rainforest. Stop trying to repeal the Voting Rights Act. Stop trying to repeal the 20th century. Stop expecting a tickertape parade for things that happened before movies had sound.

And begin to provide much-needed leadership on issues urgent to African-American voters in the here and now. For instance, mass incarceration, the failed drug war, the achievement gap and job discrimination.

In a word: Compete.

That, after all, is how the Democrats broke the Republican stranglehold on the African-American vote in the first place. It would be nice -- it would create a healthier nation -- if Republicans returned the favor.

Unfortunately, Mr. Paul's performance at Howard suggests that we ought not hold our breath while we wait.

Leonard Pitts, a Maryland resident, is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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