(The Root) — So now we know the basis of Kentucky's libertarian Sen. Rand Paul's strategy for expanding the Republican Party's appeal to African Americans: amnesia.
That's the only conclusion I can reach after watching the C-SPAN broadcast of Paul's 52-minute appearance today at Howard University. He deserves credit for appearing before a potentially hostile audience to make the case for conservative policies with which most black voters utterly disagree. But he also deserves strong criticism — even derision — for pretending that there's any mystery about why most black folks are so skeptical about the GOP. He wants us to forget the party's recent history — and his own.
So in his speech today, he asked, "How did the party that elected the first black U.S. senator, the party that elected the first 20 African-American congressmen, become a party that now loses 95 percent of the black vote? How did the Republican Party, the party of the Great Emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race?"
He went on to argue that blacks began to switch their long-standing allegiance from Republicans to Democrats during the Great Depression. "The Democrats promised equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance, while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible: the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets," Paul argued.
"Now, Republicans face a daunting task," he continued. "Several generations of black voters have never voted Republican and are not very open to even considering the option. Democrats still promise unlimited federal assistance, and Republicans promise free markets, low taxes and less regulations that we believe will create more jobs."
The simple truth is that the present-day Republican Party has virtually no resemblance to the Republican Party of, say, 1960, when Richard Nixon got 32 percent of the black vote in his race against John F. Kennedy. Four years later, the Republicans nominated right-wing Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who based his campaign on opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By 1968, Nixon had wholeheartedly accepted Goldwater's advice to "go hunting where the ducks are" by adopting a so-called Southern strategy dedicated to wooing segregationists like Strom Thurmond.
They consolidated their approach in 1980 when Ronald Reagan delivered the first major speech of his campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in one of the 1960s' ugliest cases of racist violence. Reagan gave a ringing declaration of his support for "states' rights" — code words for resistance to black advances clearly understood by white Southerners. Ever since then, the GOP has been the party of white privilege.
Paul seems to think that black voters are supposed to forget all that very recent history. He didn't mention any of it in his speech today, or in answers to two pointed questions posed by Howard students.
On top of that, he doesn't want us to remember that in a 2010 interview with the Courier-Journal, he took issue with parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants. He says he has never been against the Civil Rights Act, but his opposition is on tape. Who are we supposed to believe — him or our lying eyes?
Paul has things to say that could be appealing to many black voters, especially about the need to stop sending black kids to jail for nonviolent drug offenses. But until he and the rest of the GOP are ready to fess up about their party's embrace of racism, apologize for it and present a serious program for moving on, they're going to have a hard time attracting African-American support. They're not going to get anywhere by trying to convince us to forget what they have done.
Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor for The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.