Sorry, Sen. Rand Paul, You’re No Civil Rights Hero

Your Take: His outreach to black voters is welcome, but he’ll need to do a much better job if he expects to win our votes.

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Sen. Rand Paul speaks at the Defending the American Dream Summit sponsored by Americans for Prospertity at the Omni Hotel in Dallas on Aug. 29, 2014.

Mike Stone/Getty Images

If you’ve noticed all the construction happening on the National Mall lately, like me, you probably assumed it was for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

But apparently, a more fitting tribute to the civil rights movement’s long history of struggle for African Americans would be the erection of a monument to Sen. Rand Paul. After all, as Sen. Paul so helpfully explained to us last week, “I don’t think there has been anybody who has been a bigger defender of minority rights in the Congress than myself.” The sentiment echoes another headline from earlier this year, stating: “Rand Paul Says No Other U.S. Lawmaker Has Better Civil Rights Record.”

If that’s the case, then I suppose it’s only appropriate that someone who can so casually dismiss the contributions of Rep. John Lewis—the youngest speaker at the March on Washington and one of the heroes of Bloody Sunday—should rightfully take his place alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Abraham Lincoln.

Or, back in the realm of reality, we can take a critical look at what Sen. Paul has actually done for the African-American community.

To be fair, Sen. Paul has come down on the correct side on several issues. I’m glad that he’s been willing to work with Democrats on legislation like the REDEEM Act, reinstatement of voting rights and mandatory-minimum-sentencing reform. But the fact that he has been unable to corral any significant support from his Republican colleagues for these bills speaks more to his party and his leadership abilities than his willingness to take bold stances. These issues are low-hanging fruit if the GOP wants to make inroads with the African-American community.

Doing the bare minimum, though, doesn’t make you a hero; and it doesn’t make up for rejecting countless other policies that would help. And this is barely the bare minimum.

Nor do you get much credit just for showing up. Sen. Paul’s willingness to speak to African-American audiences is certainly a better alternative than what most of his Republican colleagues are (or aren’t) doing. But talking to a community is not the same as speaking for a community.

We may find some overlap in positions on issues ranging from marijuana to sentencing reform, but when you look at most issues that are near and dear to black voters, Sen. Paul has a long way to go before touting his own civil rights record.

Since the Supreme Court gutted a key component of the Voting Rights Act last year, Sen. Paul has opposed restoring the key federal protections for which the civil rights movement fought so hard to secure. He also supports his party’s efforts to implement stringent voter-ID laws, which studies have shown to disproportionately affect minorities.

Sen. Paul has repeatedly said that businesses should have a right to discriminate, and he’s expressed doubt about the appropriateness of the Civil Rights Act. In a Senate hearing last week, he expressed outrage at the concept of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws by investigating potential violations.

He also opposes an increase in the minimum wage and equal-pay legislation. And once again, African Americans are among those communities who would benefit most from these economic policies.

He’s certainly welcome to seek our votes, but he’ll need to do a much better job if he actually expects to win them. The easiest place to start is to stop blocking legislation that would help our community. And instead of joining Republicans as they sue the president, he should start working with him.

Sen. Paul would also do well to stop comparing himself to people like Congressman Lewis and start acting like them instead. You and I know that John Lewis is a civil rights hero, but it’s not because he told us so.

He earned it by standing up, speaking out and doing the right thing.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat, represents California’s 13th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. She is currently a senior House Democratic whip and former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Follow her on Twitter.

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