Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), brought his message of racial inclusion and minimal government interference to Howard University April 10, receiving a polite but frosty reception from students who challenged the Republican Party rising star’s view of the history of Black Americans and the Grand Old Party.
Paul’s staff referred to the visit as an outreach to young voters and minority groups but Howard students characterized the freshman senator’s appearance as shallow, uninformed and patronizing.
At the core of his speech was a pitch for individualism and an invitation to embrace the philosophy of those who believe in minimal government and limited regulation.
“I want a government that leaves you alone, that encourages you to write the book that becomes your own unique future,” he said. “You are more important than any political party, more important than any partisan pleadings.”
“I hope that some of you will be open to the Republican message that favors choice in education, a less aggressive foreign policy, more compassion regarding non-violent crime and encourages opportunity in employment,” said Paul, who has been endorsed by tea party and is considered a possible presidential candidate in 2016.
He acknowledged that his appearance at Howard was a rare one for a White Republican lawmaker. The most recent Republican members of Congress to deliver a major speech at Howard are former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in 2004 and former President George H.W. Bush in 1981 when he was vice president. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican, delivered Howard’s 1994 commencement address.
The skeptical, but respectful crowd of students, faculty and staff gathered in the University’s School of Business auditorium was polite but pushed back at Paul’s assertions about the historic relationship between the GOP and African Americans.
Two students, Ahmeen Muhammad and Brian Menifee, stood up holding a sign that was later revealed to read, “Howard University does not support white supremacy.”
“Quite frankly, I wanted to hear what he had to say, but as soon as he started to give us a history lesson as to how blacks voted Republican back in the 1800s, even though we all know there has been a shift in the parties, that’s when I realized he was trying to spew his rhetoric upon us and shift our minds and our vote,” said Muhammad.
Menifee said he was not protesting Paul himself, but he was protesting the system that Paul stands for.
His comment about creating a government that leaves people alone did not sit well with most of the crowd, like Howard student Lovisa Lloyd.
“A free market is a slave market. Free market means an economy where you can do whatever you want to do because you have the money and you have the power,” said Lloyd. “Free markets are what created this dichotomy of the people who have and the people who have not.”
The speaking engagement was the result of Paul’s request to address Howard students. “My hope is that if you will hear me out, that you will see me for who I am, not the cariacature sometimes presented by political opponents of myself.
“If you hear me out, I believe you’ll discover that what motivates me more than any other issue is the defense of everyone’s rights. And yours. Everyone’s and yours,” he said.
While his remarks included mentions of Black author Toni Morrison, when he tried to note the first African-American senator since reconstruction, he blanked on the name Edward Brooke. After the crowd spoon-fed him the name, Paul chuckled and said, “Well, I don’t know what you know.”
Following that moment, Paul began talking about how the founders of the NAACP were indeed Black Republicans, speaking as if he were giving the students new information. And they let him know that they knew that.
“I was not here for my mind to be changed. There are many things that he stands for that I actually agree with. I am tired of politicians talking about how they want the market to be free, while knowingly engaging in cronyism capitalism,” said physics graduate student Charlezetta Wilson.
He got support from the crowd about half way in when he revealed his stance on minimum prison sentences.
“Our federal mandatory minimum sentences are simply heavy handed and arbitrary. They can affect anyone at any time, though they disproportionately affect those without the means to fight them,” he said. “We should stand and loudly proclaim enough is enough. We should not have laws that ruin the lives of young men and women who have committed no violence.”
While Paul has been criticized for his comments on not supporting the Civil Rights Act, he said he supports an end to all discrimination, but does not agree with having to tell a private business they cannot discriminate.
In remarks to a reporter before the speech, Paul noted that he wanted to speak to a young college audience, a historically Black college.
“I just want people to know, all across the country that Republicans are interested in talking to African Americans, young people and audiences we haven’t done so well with,” said Paul.