Saturday, January 25, 2014

"States' Rights" - the Refuge of Racism

With the recent success of the Tea Party and resurgent popularity of Ayn Rand and libertarianism, I think it is useful to trace the history of these strains of thought, as embedded in the "states' rights" discourse. It is important to remember how particular constellations of conservative thought have been shaped by race related issues since the founding of United States. It is too easy to become seduced by the myth that these debates have centered around abstract, noble considerations of individual rights and protection from tyranny. In fact, the debates have always been grounded in very practical concerns about race.

Some of the Founding Fathers were famously uneasy about the issue of slavery, believing it to be cruel and inhumane, even while continuing to own slaves themselves. There was strong opposition to slavery, to varying degrees, from different quarters. Hence, there was a real concern among slave owners that, if the Constitution were ratified, or if the federal government were strong, the abolition of slavery could easily enter into the Constitution. Now, of course, there were other concerns, one of which related to the economic relationship among states. However, that economic system was founded on slavery. The history of race in America has always been entangled in economic concerns, and that is important to this day.

Up until the time of the Civil War and beyond, the South united under the slogan of States' Rights. Resentment toward federal government intervention was particularly salient during the Reconstruction Era. Jim Crow seemed to be a nice way around many of these meddling regulations. ...Until the liberal activist Supreme Court screwed everything up by mandating the desegregation of schools.

It was this desegregation issue that fueled the States' Rights movement for decades. The Republican Party as Americans know it today (or, at least until it started to disintegrate as of late) and the Religious Right that formed its most loyal and important base both took shape in the 1970s. Once again, there were issues fairly unrelated to race that concerned Evangelicals: feminism, sexual liberation, social unrest, etc. Yet, it was the desegregation issue that ultimately spurred them to action. Religious schools were told that they would lose their tax-exempt status if they were segregated. And boom, the Religious Right is formed.

Lately there has been a shift in the Evangelical community, with the younger generation becoming more focused on social justice than social issues. The biggest detractors of "Big Government" are now often more libertarian in orientation. They are worried about all of the taxpayer money being spent on entitlements and social services. They want to cut spending and balance the budget. On the face of it, this seems purely economic. However, examine the discourse a bit, and it is not hard to find racially loaded words and images, playing on the correlation between race and poverty. Tea Party gatherings are no stranger to overt, blatant racism. There is a fear that lazy black and brown (illegal immigrants) people are living high off the hog on the taxpayers' hard-earned money.

And then there is good old fashioned re-imposing racially biased voting laws.

Unfortunately, it seems States' Rights has had less to do with upholding individual dignity than reinforcing a racial caste system.