Rand Paul's recent visit to the prestigious historically black Howard University last week ruffled the feathers of pundits, liberals, and the black community alike. Much of the controversy surrounding his speech has to do with his on the spot attempts to revise his views on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as his attempts to paint the Republican party as a good home for black Americans, with examples of Republicans supporting the cause of civil rights, nearly 80 to 100 years ago.
And it was in this awkward, yet earnest moment that Rand Paul shared with the students of Howard that I came to a realization. The political right in general and libertarians in particular are going to find it exceedingly difficult to attract large scale support in 21st century America, a place that is increasingly majority-minority, at least not with what they currently believe. This is mainly because for most of history libertarianism has largely been shaped by white Americans. Now I'm not saying that this in itself is a bad thing, of course not. But because it has been so exclusively dominated by a demographic group that is used to being in the majority and not used to facing regular discrimination on a racial/ethnic basis, the ideology has some glaring flaws that may make voters of color reluctant to support it even if they can agree with some of their points.
The definition of libertarianism is a hotly debated thing, with libertarians ranging anywhere from wanting a government that only protects the people and enforces contracts, to a nearly anarcho-capitalist definition that essentially advocates for no government. At its most basic however libertarianism is the political set of ideas positing that liberty is the most important and fundamental building block of a free society and a free market. With that in mind, many libertarians oppose government involvement in a variety of theaters including but not limited to social spending (Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps), business regulations (outside of contract enforcement), education, marriage, drug use, the support of labor unions, abortion, and the private market. It is this last subject that is going to cause them the most trouble with people of color as they attempt to increase their status in the Republican party and the national political debate at large.
Many right-leaning libertarians share the view that the government should only prohibit discrimination in the public sphere, yet they should pass no laws that infringe on the right of private business owners to discriminate against customers, or in hiring, since in their opinion it distorts the free market. Famous libertarian Barry Goldwater voted against the 1964 Civil Rights largely on these grounds stating "You can't legislate morality."
If the libertarian right wishes to draw from our increasingly diverse electorate they are going to have to reconcile the fact that to people of color, particularly to black Americans, support of policies that enable racial/ethnic discrimination in the private market, is a total non-starter, unlike many white Americans who may not have recent family members or first hand experiences dealing with racial discrimination. Many people of color do. To us this is no abstract or classroom hypothetical situation.
Libertarians argue that it would be foolish for a business to do this because it would hurt their profit margin. While true history has shown that culture controls the parameters in which a business can operate oftentimes leading to less profitable and irrational business decisions being made, and we have plenty of examples showing white business owners passing up the money of potential black patrons in order to maintain a "respectable" appearance in the eyes of the larger white community. History also shows that just because discrimination against a particular group no longer occurs that does not mean it can not occur again, or that another group can not become the target.
I would personally love to see the rise of a coherent libertarian party or a strong libertarian wing of the Republican party, one that could be debated with on the national stage. And while there are some things I feel black Americans and libertarians can certainly agree on (For example Rand Paul's denouncing of drug laws that are used to disproportionately target black and Latino youths for incarceration).
Support from minorities will not come as long as Sen. Rand and other libertarians do not understand that while important, due to our rather tortured political history in this country, liberty is not the only value we find crucial or worth using state power to protect. Social equality must be seen as equally important. Minorities are not going to support a party that sees private discrimination as something that should not be curtailed by the government.