The big personalities in the 2016 presidential campaign has all eyes fixed on Washington politics and voters very divided over the direction for the nation following the eight years of the Obama administration. Despite the obvious interest the race for the White House generates, we might be better served by focusing attention and scrutiny upon states. It is in states where grave damage is being inflicted upon the poor, and the Black and the Latino communities, and where conservatives are mounting an offensive to preserve white political and economic power.
The many factors that define the quality of life of citizens, including housing, local law enforcement, criminal justice, public education, higher education, health care, energy and transportation, are chiefly the domain of states. While the federal government provides some funding, it is at the state level where decisions are made regarding the allocation of funds and services that affect daily life in a state. It is also at the state level where, through the Census, legislative districts are drawn that not only impact representation at the state and federal level but also the allocation of formula driven funds that are based on population subgroups. Many states also elect justices to their state Supreme Courts and state laws often impact citizens to a greater degree than federal laws. The limited knowledge citizens in states have regarding their government only serves to further disadvantage them. Many citizens place the blame for their distress on Washington, when in fact, their state capital is the source of much of their dissatisfaction.
In his book “The Third Reconstruction” the president of the North Carolina NAACP, Rev. Dr. William Barber II cautions the reader to not overlook the states in the struggle for justice. Barber has been at the forefront of the Moral Monday movement in his state; a broad progressive coalition working to counter a conservative assault in North Carolina upon public education, voting rights and labor. He warns “As much as our Forward Together Moral Movement has sought to expose the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) state-based strategy to remake America, we have also tried to make clear to justice-loving people that any attempt to reconstruct America in these perilous times must likewise look to the states.”
The hyper-focus of the news media on the presidential race and Washington politics in general distorts the reality of public policy in America, the degree to which state politics affects the day-to-day lives of millions and how the states set the mood of the nation. Much of the rhetoric being heard on the presidential campaign trail has its roots in the politics of our states. Many of the ‘ideas’ espoused by candidates seeking the White House were first seeded in state legislatures, and found their way into the national public debate after contentious and divisive battles in state capitals.
State politics is generally not glamorous; holds little of the symbolic value of the nation’s capital and most political business is conducted out of the sight of the public as usually only political insiders pay attention to the state house press corps. It is a situation that continually undermines traditionally disadvantaged groups who often find themselves attempting to ward off bad policy at the last moment or worse, protesting after a state legislature has passed some draconian bill. States are also where politicians get hands-on training in preparation for higher office, as state legislators attempt to punch their ticket to Washington DC after serving at the state level. And they bring with them a briefcase full of ideas, bills, and a network of like-minded allies; including donors who see even greater dividends with a voice on Capitol Hill.
Today, there is a myriad of offensive and potentially harmful activity at the state level that most people overlook or choose to ignore as they are seduced by the pull of the nation’s capital. In years past the supposed supremacy of the states was viewed as ‘states’ rights,’ a seemingly philosophical position on federalism that served to cover to Jim Crow infused racism. Sensing the nation’s shifting mood on civil rights, the states’ rights proponents soon converted their animosity toward what they viewed as a leftist, liberal leaning federal government to the more benign rhetoric of ‘limited government.’ It is worth taking a moment to reflect on how states’ rights and limited government emerged, serving the same end of using state government to create barriers to full citizenship for African-Americans.
In the mid-20th century the term “states’ rights” was well understood to be the rallying cry for southern racists still licking their wounds from Reconstruction. Resentment over the federal role in bringing legal slavery to an end prompted many whites in the south to rally around Jim Crow as new restrictions, ‘Black Codes’ were put in place to continue the suppression of Black rights despite the adoption of the Reconstruction constitutional amendments. The states were seen as the last line of defense against northern interference and the primacy of states became gospel for white southerners.
It was this resistance that a young politician from Minnesota, Hubert Humphrey, faced down at the 1948 Democratic National Convention as he challenged the southern wing of his party to abandon its racist tactics and ways. Humphrey’s courageous stand was the opening salvo in an intra-party struggle that came to a head for Democrats at their 1964 convention in Atlantic City. It was also apparent in the “Southern Manifesto,” a declaration of states’ rights and white supremacy signed by 99 members of Congress, 97 of them Democrats, opposing the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
The resistance we see today that is hidden behind the coded language of “small government” and “individual liberty” was birthed in the conservative movement that began to flower at the Republican National Convention in 1964 in San Francisco. It was there that the GOP nominated Senator Barry Goldwater as its presidential candidate and the conservative from Arizona began to create the framework for a movement that had as its goal minimizing federal power. At the same time a Hollywood celebrity changed his part affiliation from Democrat to Republican, and 16 years later Ronald Reagan would become the symbol of American conservatism.
The conservative movement took root at the same time that African-Americans were making gains legislatively and the federal government and courts were pushing the nation toward a more progressive future. The pushback, disguised as a philosophical debate on the role of government, was nothing more than a retooled Jim Crow. Instead of using violence and intimidation to disfranchise and disempower Blacks, the new right wing began a well thought out strategy to build white anger against government. Richard Nixon manipulated the backlash against the civil rights and anti-war movements to instill fear among whites over their personal security. It was a strategy that Nixon used effectively in 1968 by appealing to “law and order” and aiming his rhetoric toward the south. Alabama Governor George Wallace did likewise and with a sophistication that allowed him to tap into white anxiety in the north as well as Jim Crow loyalists in the south.
The new states’ rights suggested that the federal government was too far removed from the reality of most Americans and that Washington was a bloated bureaucracy run for the self-interest of liberals who wanted to “tax and spend” hard working citizens into the ground to support their leftist agenda. Behind this façade was a racially engaged strategy to undermine federal departments that administered programs that benefited the poor and African-Americans. President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,’ hardly aimed singularly at African-Americans, became a target for ridicule from conservatives who framed it as overreach while demonizing the poor and Blacks as lazy and exploiting unearned benefits (government assistance).
The anti-Washington rhetoric found its most potent messenger in Ronald Reagan, the former Hollywood B-actor and governor of California, who seized upon a floundering economy and the American hostage crisis in Iraq, and declared government (Washington) as the problem. Reagan’s characterization of ‘welfare queens’ was easily understood by his followers to be a description of Black women they perceived to be single mothers of multiple children by different men, and collecting government benefits. His framing of Blacks as government dependents coupled with his identifying the federal government as wasteful helped fuel a resurgence in states’ rights as a rallying cry for whites who resented the role of Washington in the civil rights movement. Rather than make an outright racial appeal Reagan created the imagery of a federal government run amuck, overstepping its constitutionally defined boundaries, and overrun by liberals held captive to the whims of special interests (e.g. the poor, Blacks, Latinos). He made his point by announcing his candidacy in Mississippi, a state that took joy in defying the federal government, in the city where three young civil rights activists were killed in 1963 and making no mention of that heinous crime. Reagan demonstrated his disdain for the federal government with his proposed elimination of the Department of Education.
Behind the anti-government narrative laid, and still does, the unresolved issues of the Civil War around race and citizenship, and the attempt to use states to maintain white privilege.
Ground Floor Assault
Today, there are scores of states moving to cut benefits and services to the poor, disfranchise voters, dismantle public education, destroy unions, limit civil liberties and create an economic climate that favors the wealthy.
Wisconsin: In Wisconsin Republican and unsuccessful presidential candidate Governor Scott Walker has attacked collective bargaining and worked to limit the ability of labor unions to organize politically. Given the diminished status of labor unions in the private sector, Scott’s efforts have generally been geared toward public sector workers and used to demonize government workers.
Tennessee: The House of Representatives recently passed House Bill 779, a ‘de-annexation’ measure that will allow communities to vote to secede from cities. If passed and signed into law, this legislation could further harm cities such as Memphis with large Black populations by eroding its tax base and thereby making it difficult to provide essential services such as law enforcement, fire safety, public education and public works (e.g. roads, bridges, parks, sewer maintenance).
Alabama: In the heart of Dixie a bill has been introduced by a Republican legislator that puts new restrictions on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, and the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program that provides a monthly payment to poor families with children. In one of the nation’s poorest states, such restrictions would devastate the poor.
Ohio: The Ohio Supreme Court recently ruled that neither the federal or state constitution prohibits the state from trying to execute an individual more than once. In other words, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. The ruling came in the case of Romell Broom, convicted in the murder of a 14-year-old girl. Ohio tried to execute Broom once but botched the execution, as he agonized for two hours while the lethal injections failed to do the job. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a second attempt to execute Broom did not constitute double jeopardy or cruel and unusual punishment.
North Carolina: The former mayor of Charlotte, Republican Pat McCrory, who served for 14 years and was viewed as a moderate shifted right when he became governor of North Carolina and today voting rights, public education and abortion rights are under assault, and unemployment benefits have been cut. According to the North Carolina NAACP the state’s voter ID is one of the three strictest in the nation. McCrory also repealed the state’s Racial Justice Act that gave death row inmates the right to use data to challenge their sentences on the basis of racial discrimination. Governor McCrory also signed legislation that opted the state out of expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act; a move that prevented an additional half million state residents from gaining health care coverage. The North Carolina legislature also recently passed a bill restricting LGBT accommodations. If there was a state that is the poster child of state resistance to equity, it’s North Carolina.
Texas: The Lone Star State has also been working overtime to turn the clock back on voting rights. In a state with large Spanish speaking populations, the attempt to impose burdensome voting requirements is a blatant strategy to suppress the vote. The Texas NAACP has asked the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to affirm a District Court ruling that struck down the state’s voter ID law.
New Jersey: The Garden State has taken over three of the state’s largest public school districts – Newark, Jersey City and Paterson – and failed to turn them around. All three cities have sizeable populations of poor, Black and Latino residents. Now, Republican Governor Chris Christie is pushing for the takeover of the resort city of Atlantic City, claiming it cannot manage its finances. What is seldom mentioned is how casinos in the shore resort have failed to resuscitate the city as promised by the state and how competition from neighboring Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, and Maryland has made gaming a losing bet. In the process of taking over school districts and cities, communities of color are disfranchised and lose the right to determine how their tax dollars will be used.
Michigan: The leaded water crisis in Flint is developing into a nightmare for residents of that city, and Governor Rick Snyder (R) is facing calls for his resignation. This episode has also exposed the indifference in a state capital for city residents. The callousness exhibited with regard to the public’s health also put issues of race and class squarely at the center of this debacle. The recently released state report on the Flint crisis illustrates the manner in which the safety of residents was downplayed despite evidence that the city’s water supply was tainted.
Front Doors to Discrimination
What defines many of these policy maneuvers is that they are being championed by right-wing Republicans. The GOP has effectively used the states to wage war on civil rights, reverse social policy gains and prevent state government from an active role in facilitating equity. It is a strategy that has been aided by a policy making apparatus – the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – that has churned out model legislation that has been farmed out to Republicans in state legislatures. It has been an effective effort as Republican office holders have overwhelmed their Democratic counterparts and gained the upper hand in reshaping the role of state government. With a clear pro-business agenda, Republicans in states have loosened regulations and regulatory oversight, and significantly retrenched the role of states in leveling the economic playing field. They have done so within the confines of state law and rule making, rendering the federal government mostly irrelevant. And in cases where possible violations of federal law exist, Republicans have been willing to take their chance in court sensing that if a case reaches the Supreme Court on a constitutional issue the odds are good for a favorable under this present Court.
For the African-American community the stakes are high. Very high. Yet, the attention to state politics seems to be low. The focus on Beltway politics obscures the back door assault on states, made even worse by the understandable fixation with Washington during the Obama presidency. As the gaze has been on the White House and Capitol Hill, Republicans have been burning the midnight oil in governors’ offices and state houses setting up a secure perimeter around state capitals. For African-Americans to regain forward progress, attention must be directed toward state capitals and considerable effort in terms of labor, time and financial resources must be made to reset the agenda in states.