For the past few weeks, all eyes have been on Rand Paul, the GOP's choice to represent Kentucky in the Senate. Paul, who credits the Tea Party with his recent primary victory, burst onto the national stage by repeating his claim that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was wrong to force businesses to desegregate. In Paul's view, businesses should be able to discriminate as they please because they are in the private sector.
Thankfully, Rand Paul can be voted down at the ballot box. But there's a more insidious force that's amplifying the voice of Paul and taking it further: Fox News. John Stossel, a contributor to Fox News and a Fox Business host, immediately rushed to Paul's defense on the May 20 edition of America Live, even chiding the candidate for not going far enough:
"I would go further than he [Paul] was willing to go … and say it's time now to repeal that part of the law because private businesses ought to get to discriminate. And I won't ever go to a place that's racist and I will tell everybody else not to and I'll speak against them. But it should be their right to be racist."
And he made the point again a week later on another Fox show. This is, of course, nothing new from Fox, which regularly uses its platform to stir the pot of anti-government and ethnocentric sentiments. We've seen it before, but that doesn't mean we should let it go unchecked. With the backing of a major media company, Stossel is validating and creating space for the re-legitimization of race-based discrimination, which undermines the very notion of what American democracy is about.
Now, that's not how they tell it. Paul, Stossel, the tea partiers and others fashioning themselves as libertarians claim that they espouse a simple theory of limited government that grants businesses the right to conduct themselves as they please. They argue that the free market will take care of effects related to race—since they and countless others wouldn't support businesses that chose to discriminate, those businesses would eventually fail.
Either Paul, Stossel and adherents to their philosophy are naive or they're being disingenuous. There is nothing in our history to suggest that racist businesses would close simply by dint of negative public opinion. Indeed, we have every reason to believe that in some parts of the country they would thrive—people would patronize them because they discriminate, not in spite of it. Further, it's not clear where Stossel or Paul would draw the line on private discrimination. According to their logic, businesses should be able to refuse to hire people if they are black or brown. Homeowners could decide not to sell their home to someone of a different race. Do we honestly believe that market forces would right those injustices?
But the free market's ability to eradicate discrimination is beside the point. In passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, people in our country came together—everyday folks and our leaders—and decided that America would not be a country where people could refuse service based on things like skin color. We did so in part because we recognize that businesses benefit from the common infrastructure that we all support. The roads that lead to a business, the electricity provided to it, and the police that protect it—all are secured by local and federal governments kept afloat by our collective tax dollars. With those benefits come obligations for business to treat all members of the community equally.
The stronger driving force behind the act's passage was the collective decision that a society where people can be refused service, housing or a job based on skin color is a backward society, one that reduces security and economic opportunity for all. We decided that government can secure a higher moral standard for the common good. That is what democracy is about—setting norms that bind us together. And that is what John Stossel, Rand Paul and their ilk are trying to undermine. Under the guise of free market fundamentalism, they want to raise doubt about the ability of Americans to come together and make those kinds of decisions.
For Fox, promoting radical and ahistorical views is nothing new. Stossel's behavior is simply the most recent in a pattern of Fox News hosts fanning the flames of racial resentment and passing it off as fact-based commentary. We've seen Glenn Beck stoke race-based fear on the part of white Americans by declaring President Obama a "racist" with "a deep-seated hatred for white people." We've seen Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and others disparage black political leaders and institutions with impunity for years.
But none of those commentators have gone as far as to call for a reversal of policies that outlaw racial discrimination. That's why more than 85,000 Color of Change members have signed a petition calling on News Corporation (Fox News' parent) to fire Stossel. If Rupert Murdoch's media empire refuses, it's time for us to make a choice: Are we willing to keep shrugging and changing the channel as Fox offers safe harbor for race-baiting and anti-democratic commentary? Or will we stand together and do what's necessary to deliver real consequences for Fox? I'm hoping for the latter.
James Rucker is the executive director of Color of Change, an online community of more than 600,000 people dedicated to amplifying the political voice of black America.