Reacting to navel gazing articles by two other New York Times columnists on the meaning of an obscure appearance by Ronald Reagan when he ran for president, Herbert argues that the event typified the ex-President's legacy as one of racial indifference. (An aside: Uh ... the "newshook" is 27 years old, and this is a "must read"?) In promoting "states rights," said Herbert, Reagan:
was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about “states’ rights” to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.I think it's time to bust apart apart this stale, outdated meme that "states rights" is merely "code" for racism. There's some historical truth to it, but it's a truth that obscures many equally important ones, IMO damaging honest political discussion more than clarifying it.
My family were Reagan Democrats during that 1980 presidential campaign, and since my grandfather was an LBJ ally and county judge for 29 years in the Panhandle, our home was fairly politically minded. As I near 41 later this month, I've spent my whole adult life working in politics on issues related to civil rights, including performing a lot of the lobby legwork at the Texas capitol after the Tulia case Mr. Herbert wrote so much about (we met once in Tulia, though I doubt he'd remember).
Given that familial and personal history, I feel fairly qualified to speak about the ideology Herbert is criticizing. I believe in "states rights" today as strongly as I did when I cheered at a (different) Reagan rally in 1980 and volunteered for his re-election campaign in 1984 as a 17 year old.
It may be just "code" to you, Mr. Herbert, but to me it's an important part of the Constitution that's been defenestrated thanks to liberal smears that claim anyone who argues for state authority under the Tenth Amendment is a racist. To this day the Tenth Amendment (and the even more downtrodden Ninth) still animate many of my core beliefs:
I'm horrified by the abuse of the Interstate Commerce Clause to justify federal regulation in areas where it has no business, transforming what was intended to be a limited federal government into a nearly all-powerful one.
I consider the federal War on Drugs and the expansion of federal prisons, law enforcement and immigration detention a direct spite to the separation of federal and state powers articulated in the Constitution.
It infuriates me when the feds threaten to withhold highway funds or use other forms of coercion to make states do things like implement a national ID through the REAL ID Act, along with many other examples.
I'm mindful that regulating immigration before the Civil War was a states' right, another power seized by a newly all-powerful federal government during Reconstruction. (The first US immigration law, naturally, was racist in nature, restricting entry of "coolies" from China.) Thus all of today's immigration feuds, talk of a "fence," etc., to my way of thinking, directly result from stripping away states' power.
If states rights were only about slavery and Jim Crow - and Herbert's 100% correct those arguments were primary justifications by supporters for both - then I'd agree the phrase could be dismissed as mere "code" for racism and cast aside in polite company and official venues. But the idea that most governing rights should be reserved to the states had a much broader meaning both in antebellum America and in 1980, one that tapped into legitimate ideological streams of thought dating back to Thomas Jefferson, in addition to the racist ones Mr. Herbert highlights.
Speaking of Jefferson, in the Kentucky Resolution, the great man wrote that the Constitution, "delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force."
White southerners like my family believed that Jeffersonian creed to their core. It was Reconstruction, we understood, that shattered that founding constitutional principle through martial law and authoritarian decrees, launching a creeping expansion of federal power and domestic militarism, according to this view, that continues to this day.
Herbert's derision for states rights stems from his belief that it is purely a racially charged, rhetorical gimmick, a belief confirmed en toto, he thinks, by "the acknowledgment by the Republican strategist Lee Atwater that the use of code words like 'states’ rights' in place of blatantly bigoted rhetoric was crucial to the success of the G.O.P.’s Southern strategy."
States rights isn't only a mask for racism, it's part of an ideology of small government, limiting (and separating) state power, and above all, local control. Confusing those ideas, as does Bob Herbert's "must read" column, leads to misunderstanding people's motives and dumbing down the debate.
UPDATE: Jeralyn at TalkLeft agrees liberals shouldn't view states rights as a dirty word. Alex, at the Drug Law Blog, thinks I want to have my cake and eat it too, while Pete at Drug War Rant adds his two cents.