After offering a theoretical defense of owner rights and doubting the constitutionality of that section of the law, Paul was asked by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, "How about desegregating lunch counters?"
While not answering the question directly, Paul suggested that he would place the rights of an owner over the rights of a customer.
"Well, what it gets into then is if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says 'well no, we don't want to have guns in here,' the bar says 'we don't want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each-other.' "
Paul continued: "Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant? These are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion."
Maddow responded: "Well, it was pretty practical to the people who had the life nearly beaten out of them trying to desegregate Walgreen's lunch counters [during the civil rights movement] despite these esoteric debates about what it means about ownership. This is not a hypothetical, Dr. Paul."
In a later interview, Paul criticized Maddow for asking the question. He also issued a statement saying he would not seek to repeal the Civil Rights Act.
However, Paul's emphasis on owner rights gets to a central political question facing the country: Should the federal government do what it can to advance the nation's "general welfare," whether that means addressing social injustice (like segregation or other forms of discrimination) or alleviating economic pain (like high unemployment and lack of health care)?
Bush's Free Pass
The suspicions that Tea Partiers harbor racial and other prejudices also have been fed by the failure of many on the Right to object when President George W. Bush was claiming his unilateral authority to declare anyone he wished an "enemy combatant" and then denying basic rights such as habeas corpus.
It's true that some libertarians did criticize Bush's power grab, but many of today's right-wing activists didn't seem to mind as long as Bush was negating the rights of Muslims.
Indeed, two of the recurring Tea Party themes have been to claim that Obama was born in Kenya and that he is a secret Muslim, false racist-tinged claims that have been cheered at Tea Party rallies. There's also the wacky stuff about Obama as the anti-Christ, as Hitler, as a Communist, as pro-terrorist, etc., etc.
Arguably, this anti-Obama hatred derives in part from his race, though it's also true that President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton experienced ugly personal attacks in the 1990s, especially from the emerging right-wing powerhouse media, from the likes of talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
The Republican Party learned from the Clinton years that the "politics of personal destruction" works, as long as the themes are amplified enough through a dedicated media echo chamber. Many people end up believing what they hear if it is repeated often enough, even if the allegations lack any evidentiary support.
So, in 1993-94, Limbaugh and other right-wing media personalities pounded away at the Clintons, with suggestions that they were murderers and drug traffickers who ran a kind of Third World regime in Arkansas, a theme that amazingly spread beyond right-wing crazies into traditional conservative outlets like the Wall Street Journal and into centrist and even liberal publications, from The New Republic to The New Yorker.
When I was working at PBS "Frontline," there was internal pressure to adopt this odd conventional wisdom that Arkansas was Haiti and Clinton was its Baby Doc. Some national journalists even fancied themselves as risking their lives by daring to travel to Arkansas to report on Clinton's "crimes."
As silly as much of this was, the dark suspicions about Clinton played an important role in the 1994 congressional elections. The Right energized by its newfound media clout turned out its voters in big numbers, while the Left, which lacked an effective media and had become disillusioned by Clinton's cautious centrism, sat back.