NAACP Chief: GOP Needs To Become Party of Civil Rights

Ben Jealous

A couple of weeks ago, Senator Rand Paul did a courageous and unusual thing by visiting Howard University in DC. Howard is what is known as a “historically black university,” founded in the wake of the Civil War to provide opportunities for higher education to African-Americans. It’s not exactly home turf for Republicans, but that’s precisely why Paul went, in order to bridge a massive gap that is hurting the GOP.

Response to his visit was mixed, but yesterday, NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous wrote a generally supportive op-ed on CNN. Although noting that Paul missed his target in most areas, there is one area that has promise:

Paul struck out when he tried to equate today’s Republican Party with the party of Abraham Lincoln, while ignoring much of the 150 years in between. (He even acknowledged his mistakes shortly after). But his willingness to step up to the plate can provide a lesson for a GOP struggling to get on top.

Republicans will not win black votes by paying lip service to party history while attacking social programs and voting rights. But they can make inroads by showing a commitment to civil rights, something Paul managed to do briefly in his remarks.

Paul received applause when he told the Howard crowd, “We should not have drug laws or a court system that disproportionately punishes the black community.” He illustrated using one issue where the GOP can connect with black voters: criminal justice reform.

Just before the 2012 elections, the NAACP took a nonpartisan survey of black voters in key swing states. We found that 55% of African Americans believe Republicans “don’t care at all about civil rights” while another 32% think the party “just says what minorities want to hear.” But 14% said they would be more likely to vote for a Republican in the future, if they found a candidate who demonstrated a strong commitment to civil rights.

Mass incarceration is a fundamental civil rights issue. African Americans make up 40% of the 2.4 million people in America’s bloated prison system. That includes the vast majority of those in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his life.

Mr. Jealous will not get any arguments from me here. Our criminal justice system is a disgrace. Being tough on crime has netted America nothing but a bloated, stuffed-to-the-gills justice/prison system that is reaching capacity and falling apart. What can we do?

Obviously, a great first step will be to legalize marijuana. Already, with the referenda passed in Washington State and Colorado, we’re seeing major progress. Puerto Rico may jump on the wagon soon, and there has also been legislation introduced in Congress to create a commission to review federal marijuana laws. I’m not worried on this front, and hopefully increased progress will reduce mass incarceration quickly.

There is also the problem of general overcriminalization, by dealing with everything via criminal law, rather than resorting to civil penalties. In some places you can be sent to jail if you don’t prune your plants properly. It is utter madness. Fortunately, already, some on the right are working to deal with this issue. The Heritage Foundation, earlier this month, put out a legal memorandum calling for a “mistake of law” defense, whereby people who had no idea they broke some obscure law are defended from idiotic criminal penalties.

This would be especially useful for those instances where police officers try to drag someone into jail on a minor, relatively insignificant charge, in the hopes of nabbing them on something far more major. That’s just harassment. And with over 4,000 different federal crimes, not hard for law enforcement to do.

There are other areas we can work on. When I was an intern at Cato, I saw a series of PBS documentaries on the criminal justice system that changed the way I view it. The first was The Plea, a documentary that showed how plea bargains, far from being fair, are actually used capriciously and just to reduce caseload, rather than doing what the justice system is actually for: getting justice. There was also the horrifying story of The Confessions, where a cop who continually hounded a poor man got four people to confess to a crime they didn’t commit, just to get him off their backs.

These things have got to stop. And conservatives and libertarians can and should take the lead in stopping them, and the Right on Crime initiative, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has begun paving the way to work toward these reforms. .

Mr. Jealous also notes that 42% of African-Americans feel the Democratic Party is failing them on criminal justice issues, and (as quoted above) 14% would vote for the Republicans if they took a stand on civil rights. Rand Paul did that a month ago with his epic filibuster against the use of drones on American citizens, and more broadly, the defense of due process.

That’s a much, much better strategy than the current one GOP strategists are using: trying to appeal to African-Americans and other minority groups on socially conservative grounds. I got a ton of tweets after the 2012 election where the conservatives insisted that the GOP had to become more socially conservative in order to get more of the Hispanic and black vote. But as Walter Olson of the Cato Institute notes, this “Social Conservative Minority Realignment Thesis” is dumber than a Pacific cargo cult.

It’s time for a new approach for the GOP. Rand Paul’s strong stance on civil rights has attracted a lot of attention—and that he has the president of the NAACP writing approvingly is only a good thing. By working on marijuana legalization, reforming the criminal justice system, decreasing overcriminalization, and maybe spending a little more money on the court system rather than the prison (thus alleviating the need for unfair plea bargains that serve no one), the GOP can work to establish a better, fairer, more just criminal justice system. In the process, the party will likely earn more African-American votes. Will the effect be immediate? No—but over the long term, it will earn dividends—not just for the GOP, but for all of America.

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