Rand Paul, the son of Ron Paul, just won the Republican primary in Kentucky for the U.S. Senate race. He'll face the Democratic nominee, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, in November. Paul's victory is getting a lot of attention in the media because he symbolizes the Tea Party's ability to get candidates in contention and also because he has some funny (and not ha-ha funny) views about the Civil Rights Act.
From this interview it seems like he thinks that federal law shouldn't discriminate based on race (or gender and all the others, probably) but that the integrity of private freedom should be defended at whatever cost, even if that means letting a restaurant refuse to serve black people. He reiterated those views in an NPR interview yesterday. He's walking it back but it's pretty clear that's just because he wants to be a Senator now.
So do these views make him a racist? I don't think so. To his mind, he's just defending some pure philosophical principle of personal freedom, despite the regrettable entailment that it would allow for private discrimination. We should tolerate that (even if, as Adam Serwer points out, he'll never have to deal with what's actually hard about this "hard part of freedom").
The right response to Paul isn't to freak out or label him a racist, but to deal with argument. Take his free speech analogy. Paul says we should tolerate "abhorrent groups saying awful things" to defend an incorruptable right to free speech. Sure, but should we tolerate someone shouting "fire" in a crowded theater? Or someone shouting "bomb" on a crowded airliner? Should we tolerate a private hospital refusing to treat a critically injured black patient?
The point is, at some point he's got to admit that protecting individual freedom is not as important as preventing a plane crash (or some other public harm). And if he's willing to compromise free speech in those areas, why not compromise the freedom to discriminate to ensure we don't have harmful racist discrimination?
He just doesn't seem to have thought this through at all.