As you might expect, Thursday evening’s Republican primary debate offered its fair share of rhetoric and fear-mongering. There was, though, one moment of clarity and even compassion: Rand Paul’s brief monologue about the justice system and its unfairness to people of color, especially relating to drug crimes.
When the debate’s moderators brought up last year’s protests in Ferguson, Mo. and the Black Lives Matter movement that has sprung up in the past few years, Paul said this:
It is difficult to state just how out-of-step Paul is with most conservatives on this issue. Movement conservatives tend to dismiss racial disparities in prison as simply the result of people of color committing more crimes, and many like to harp on things like “personal responsibility” and “the disintegrating family” as the reason for the higher population of people of color in jails. Granted, some of that may be changing as right wing power brokers like the Koch Brothers and House Speaker Paul Ryan are starting to come to Paul’s side on the issue.
The stats, though, are in Paul’s favor:
Despite similar rates of drug use across the racial divide, people of color make up an outsize portion of the prison population. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, 57% of drug offenders in state prisons and 77% of drug offenders in federal prison are black or Latino.
In her seminal book on the topic, The New Jim Crow, Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander argues that this is not a random phenomenon or the result of a few incidences of racism. Instead, it’s an institutional problem:
This type of thing isn’t normally talked about by Republicans, at least not in the presidential debate; in fact, it is rarely mentioned by Democrats.
Rand Paul probably isn’t going to be the Republican presidential nominee, but his influence in the libertarian wing of the Republican Party will likely endure. Perhaps it’s a sign that at least some on the conservative side of the political aisle will continue to discuss mass incarceration and racial justice disparities.