States’ Rights & American racism

This is a huge topic, obviously, which becomes emotionally charged when you throw the word “racism” into the mix.    America needs to confront our long history of virulent racism, and I will dip into the subject a little here.  Leaving racism aside for the moment, there are historical scholars on both sides of this long running debate over federalism, who should have the final say in local matters, the state or the federal government.  

Our federal system gives the states the final say on making and enforcing criminal and civil law, including family law and business laws.   Only certain legal matters, essential to the nation’s functioning, are ceded by the states to the federal government.   Printing currency, for example, and a nationwide postal system, have long been federal functions.  It was simply impractical for either of these things to be left to the individual states.  Other rights, such as a woman’s right to choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, have been extended nationally by a Supreme Court decision recognizing a Constitutional right, even if it was creatively found in the penumbra of some other Amendment.

The absolute right of the States to decide the laws for their citizens, without federal interference, has long been an area of controversy.   Some states have outlawed the death penalty, others, like Texas, are perennially among the world leaders in death by execution.   Several states were “dry” before Prohibition became the law of the land for thirteen lucky years (for organized crime) and a few states, and many counties and towns, remained alcohol free after repeal of the 18th Amendment.   Some states allow concealed carry of handguns, others allow open carry of rifles and handguns, others restrict the right of citizens to carry guns anywhere [1].   Certain states are leaders in environmental law, for example.  California has passed strict emissions and gas mileage laws for cars sold in California and driven by its citizens.   Our new president is challenging California’s right to impose environmental standards higher than the federal mandates, put in place by his hated enemy Obama, standards which he is now lowering.   This fight over States’ rights has been going on since our nation’s earliest days.

The classic States’ rights battle was over an American’s right to own Negroes as property.  At one time chattel slavery, an ironclad right guaranteed by three of four discreet clauses in our the Constitution, was left up to the citizens of the states to vote on.   The introduction of slavery to a new territory or state was always a matter of bloody contention.   Trouble is, whatever you want to say about the “Peculiar Institution” now, slavery was lucrative as hell for the people who sold and owned the most slaves.   Certain crops, like cotton, were not nearly as profitable if you had to pay the people who did the difficult picking.    Those super-lucrative crops, planted year after year on the same fields, quickly depleted the soil, which meant that periodically moving the plantation to new fertile territory was essential for the continued profits of those who employed the vast majority of the enslaved.  It’s why the enormous Louisiana Territory, and later the annexed Republic of Texas, both came in as slave territories.

The Civil War was not waged by Lincoln to abolish slavery, as he stated succinctly to abolitionist publisher Horace Greeley and others.  Lincoln prosecuted the war against the states in rebellion in order to preserve the Union, and he would have given ground on the issue of slavery to achieve that end.   More Americans spilled their blood, and lost their lives, in that war than in any other war in U.S. history. The total dead was greater than all Americans killed in all other wars since 1776 combined, until the police action in Vietnam finally tipped the scales over a hundred years later.   You could look it up. 

I am always trying, or most often trying, to be as objective and fair as possible in analyzing things here.  We live in a nation as divided as it was in 1854, the year the Supreme Court declared that slavery was protected by the federal government everywhere in these United States, that there was no such thing as a “free state” for a slave to escape to.   A few years later we had the Civil War.   A hundred years later, to the year, the Supreme Court finally whacked another hornet’s nest– segregation.   It was held to be inherently unequal, and in the case of public schools, was ordered to be stopped “with all deliberate speed.”   People were enraged and people died after this decision too.   In every state that favored segregation, and they weren’t only in the former Confederacy, mandated desegregation was seen as federal overreach.

Where I feel I may have been unfair the other day, in bringing up this issue, was when I called today’s States’ Rights advocates racists.  That is such an emotionally charged word.  We live in a racist society, to put it plainly.   Segregation is still pretty much the rule here, although it is now de facto rather than de jure segregation.   There are no longer laws that demand continued separation of the races, it is just what’s generally done here, it’s the way most Americans act.  

It is impossible to live here without noticing the racism.  Token blacks become fabulously rich, and powerful, which gives the impression that we are “post-racial”, as racist pundits and conservative jurists like to claim.  A mulatto was even elected president a few years back, though he was subjected to ruthless personal attacks about where he was born, in an attempt to delegitimize him and defeat all of his policy initiatives.  These symbols of post-racialism aside, for the masses of blacks in America today, as for many “non-white” immigrant groups, racism is still a big, often murderous, monster.

I am trying to think of the States Rights argument divorced from racism.  It shouldn’t be so hard to do.   Community standards determine what is or is not pornography, for example.   There are many things that should legitimately be matters for the locality to decide.   Like if you want an oil pipeline bringing toxic tar sands sludge across your watershed.  Or if you want to ban powerful toxic chemicals used by agribusiness from your local farms.   Powerful forces have ways of defeating massive local resistance.   If there’s enough money in it, watch how quickly, whenever convenient, federal sovereignty is invoked to clobber the will of the local citizens.    Monsanto/Bayer is in the process of doing this to eliminate local opposition to their toxic agribusiness products.

One of my favorite bits of hypocrisy, from otherwise staunch States’ Rights folks, usually political conservatives who claim to favor “small government”, is ongoing federal enforcement of Nixon’s draconian Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 .  That law classifies marijuana as a dangerous, highly addictive drug with no potential medical use.  The necessity, almost 50 years of medical research later, to have a national prohibition on drugs like marijuana?   Uh… it’s the fucking law, fuck face!!!!   Only evil people smoke weed!   In the case of something like PTSD, marijuana has been shown to be as effective as, and sometimes more effective than, the cocktail of pharmaceuticals currently being served up to a population that kills themselves in large numbers every week.   140 desperate U.S. war veterans a week, according to Obama one Veteran’s Day.

Even the enforcement of Nixon’s federal drug law has a large racist element to it, which is part of its design [2].  The Controlled Substances Act has been applied to people of color way out of proportion to their numbers in society.  When Nixon passed the law it was envisioned by him as a way to keep his enemies on a short leash.   Hippies, Yippies, blacks, Mexicans, musicians, liberal intellectuals, young anti-war protesters, homosexuals, often seemed to prefer marijuana to good old American booze.    Nixon got drunk every night during the final phase of his presidency, but nobody would accuse him of being a pothead.  The numbers of people prosecuted and locked up for long prison terms under this federal law, and its many state analogues, are disproportionately “minority”. 

So I’m not just gratuitously badmouthing these racist fucks when I call them racists. We can look at the situation on the ground dispassionately and call a spade a spade, no?   The resistance to federal Civil Rights laws, including the ongoing attacks on the Voting Rights Act, like the derailing of anti-lynching legislation for a hundred years, was led by racists.   There is no way to sugar coat this.  If a state does not prevent lynching, and resists federal efforts to do so… do you have another reason, outside of good, old-fashioned American racism, handy?    The antebellum South, we were told with a straight face for decades, was a place where God set the superior white race as rulers and protectors of the inferior black race.  If you want to call that racist, go ahead.

That said, the most racist place I can recall visiting, and that includes areas between New York and Florida we drove through when I was a kid in the early 60s, where unimaginably squalid shacks could be seen by the interstate with unimaginably ragged black kids playing out front, was Boston.   We went to get ice cream at a famous Boston ice cream place, I think it was called Steve’s, and our route was blocked by a gigantic protest march.  It was 1974 or 1975.  The white parents were livid, red-faced, screaming.  Twenty years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, it was still not time to have their children taken out of the neighborhood to sit in classrooms with “niggers.”   They roared the word, it was no secret back then.

It is no secret now.  We may call it the “n-word” and agree to ostracize any non-black person in public who says the word “nigger.”  It is a hate crime for a white person to speak this word in virtually any context.   Racists have always been sly.   You never heard Obama called a nigger, not by any public official, though he was brazenly treated that way by his obstructionist Republican rivals.  He was, you know, nothing to do with his race, simply illegitimate, a liar, someone who cynically and flippantly pretended to be qualified to be president, someone who hid a telltale birth certificate that proved he was… well, you know, that’s how all those fucking people are, idn’t it?  They will lie, pretend, speak very well, make high-sounding arguments to cover their treachery.   Obama was called a secret Muslim by the same people who attacked his militant black Christian preacher.  

I can’t imagine being a black American today, born in a neighborhood where the infant mortality rate is higher than in some third world countries.  Life expectancy for black Americans… well, the NY Times has great news, the gap is closing, down to only about four years longer for whites.  Read all about it here.  How does a black person look around at our great and wealthy nation without fucking screaming?  I am a “white” Jew (an oxymoron, according to most non-Jewish racists) and I feel like hollering every day, though I can go anywhere I want with virtually no possibility of being stopped, frisked or shot.

Nothing to see here, folks.  We post-racial now, baby, and some of those folks marching with Nazi armbands and Confederate symbols, chanting “Jews will not replace us”– some of the finest people, the finest people, believe me, believe me.  It is on us to discuss this shameful history and continue to find ways forward, even as it is a difficult conversation to begin after centuries of ruthless silence.  The kids today are doing a much better job of ignoring racist distinctions than any other generation, by the looks of it, but we should all be talking about this, even our finest people, especially our very finest people.


[1]  Special shout out to major league asshole Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA.  LaPierre advocates a federal law allowing citizens of states that allow concealed carry of firearms to bring their concealed guns into all other states.   This insane shit idea is actually being debated and has a lot of votes in the Congress.

 These highly principled gun rights advocates have banned guns from an upcoming address  by Koch puppet and Trump’s VP Mike Pence at the NRA’s annual national convention.   All those good guys with guns who can stop a bad guy with a gun will be prevented from carrying guns when they go hear Mike Pence address the upcoming pro-gun rally in Dallas.  Way to go, Wayne!

In fairness to Wayne and his murderous ilk, the Secret Service will not allow guns at the event.  The NRA is only following the law.  One still must wonder why the president’s own men have become such anti-gun freedom haters.

High school students, some of whom hate LaPierre’s freedom, pile on:

“Wait wait wait wait wait wait you’re telling me to make the VP safe there aren’t any weapons around but when it comes to children they want guns everywhere?” Matt Deitsch, a Parkland student who helped organize the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., wrote on Twitter. “Can someone explain this to me? Because it sounds like the NRA wants to protect people who help them sell guns, not kids.”


[2]     I quote:

In June 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” He dramatically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies, and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.

A top Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, later admitted: “You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”  Nixon temporarily placed marijuana in Schedule One, the most restrictive category of drugs, pending review by a commission he appointed led by Republican Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer.

In 1972, the commission unanimously recommended decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use. Nixon ignored the report and rejected its recommendations.        [Talk about the fucking N-word… ed.]


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