Ron Paul, a Republican presidential candidate has been drawing a lot of fire recently over newsletters published in the 1980s that make racist statements. Paul defends himself by saying he simply can’t be a racist because he is a Libertarian and Libertarianism doesn’t acknowledge social aspects of life such as race/racism. In this piece Nathan Palmer probes the logic behind Paul’s argument and draws comparisons to colorblind racism
“I don’t see gender. I am gender-blind. I only see the content of a person’s character.” Would you believe me if I told you that? That would sure make for some awkward dating moments, amirite? Of course I see gender, because I have eyes. And yet a common response to racism is, “I don’t see race. I am colorblind. I only see the content of a person’s character.”
Where does this idea that you can “see past race” come from? A few places.First, racism is often viewed as a bad thing and most people want to see themselves as good people. So many folks want to separate themselves from racism. The second source many “colorblind” advocates draw on is Martin Luther King who famously said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” That’s where the “content of their character” part comes from. MLK was dreaming of a society where racial equality had been achieved; not a society where racial inequality was ignored by people pretending it didn’t matter.
Sociologists call this “colorblind racism”. The idea here is that racial inequality between whites and people of color exist and the move to not see race (i.e. be colorblind) benefits whites because they are allowed to keep their racial advantage while pretending that race isn’t important. This is akin to finding out at halftime that the referees in a football game are being paid to throw the game for one team and then this wining team suggesting, “Let’s just get new, fair refs for the second half and keep the score 43–0. Ok?” Ignoring inequality and advantage doesn’t make them go away. For that matter does any problem go away by ignoring it?
Yesterday Ron Paul finished 3rd in the Iowa caucus. By all accounts the Iowa caucuses got nasty with candidates making personal attacks on each other. Ron Paul, a congressperson from Texas who has ran for president before, was polling above expectations leading up to yesterday’s caucus, so it was not surprising that he too was harshly scrutinized by the media and his opponents.
One of the “skeleton’s in his closet” that was used against him was a newsletter that was published in his name and that he profited off of. The newsletter, which was not written by Paul himself despite having his name on it, contained racist statements that Paul himself has described as terrible and to which he has publicly disavowed himself from.
In 2008 Ron Paul went on CNN to address the racism in his newsletter. Paul put a new spin on colorblind racism by arguing that he couldn’t be racist because he’s a Libertarian. He said“Libertarians are incapable of being racist, because racism is a collectivist idea, you see people in groups.”
Libertarianism, a political philosophy that Paul subscribes to, is the idea that government should be minimized as much as possible, so that individual freedoms can be maximized. The political philosophy disregards issues and concerns that arise from our shared existence. In other words, the social aspects of society are unimportant or imaginary. All that matters are individual rights and liberties.
The logic behind Paul’s newsletter defense is the same as the logic behind colorblind racism. In a sense Paul is saying, “because of my political beliefs I choose to ignore social or collectivist issues so I therefore can’t be a racist.”
All of us, Ron Paul included, want to see ourselves as good moral people. Many of us see racism as a social evil, so it is not surprising that people want to distance themselves from it. However, the idea that you can wash your hands of racism by simply pretending you can’t see race is ridiculous. Same goes for Ron Paul’s argument that Libertarians can’t be racist because they don’t acknowledge the social aspects of life.
Is Ron Paul a racist? That’s beyond the point I’m making here. Ultimately that’s for you to decide, but if you asked, “can Ron Paul and other Libertarians be racist?” The answer is yes, of course.
- Ignoring a problem almost never makes it go away, but on the issue of race many people suggest that if we pretended it wasn’t an issue and just stopped talking about racism, it would simply fade away. Play devil’s advocate against this argument. Why will ignorance not solve racism and racial inequality?
- Is it possible that you could say or do something that you would later consider racist? Can “good people” say or do things that are out of character that they would later regret?
- Imagine you are Ron Paul. How would you react to this newsletter controversy?
- If being “colorblind” isn’t the solution to reduce racism and racial inequality in the world today, what should we do to bring about the racial equality Martin Luther King dreamed of.