Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Grits to Bob Herbert: You still don't understand white southerners

If readers will excuse a slightly off-topic post, over at Talk Left a Bob Herbert column in the New York Times is billed as a must read that frankly punched some of my buttons, and not in a good way. So, having this forum, I thought I'd respond.

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I think it's time to bust apart apart this stale, outdated meme that "states rights" is merely "code" for racism.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.


Anonymous said...

How 'bout he does not understand the U.S. Constitution.

Very well stated on this post.

Nowadays states are taking lessons from the Federal Government and usurping power from local governments.

If the Founding Fathers were alive today, I believe we would have revolution again.

Anonymous said...

What about this part of the article that you linked to:
"That was the atmosphere and that was the place that Reagan chose as the first stop in his general election campaign. The campaign debuted at the Neshoba County Fair in front of a white and, at times, raucous crowd of perhaps 10,000, chanting: “We want Reagan! We want Reagan!”"

Or this:
"And Reagan meant it. He was opposed to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the same year that Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were slaughtered. As president, he actually tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He tried to get rid of the federal ban on tax exemptions for private schools that practiced racial discrimination. And in 1988, he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of federal civil rights legislation."

If it's correct that Reagan started his campaign there, and that the place was a hotbed of racism and insular thinking, why take issue with the article? Did you link to any information on the Dixiecrats and the State's Rights Party and that they promoted segregation? Not that I can see.

You admit "state's rights" used to be used as a defense for "state's wrongs," but you don't give any specific examples, and then you list issues that have probably nothing to do with Reagan and his speech on that particular day.

Reagan gave that speech over 20 years ago, during a different time, and he knew what he was doing and who his audience was. He probably used the phrase "state's rights" to pander to racists and segregationists. That doesn't mean anybody who uses the phrase "state's rights" gets labeled a racist, and the article doesn't say they should be. Herbert wrote nothing about the balance between federal and states' powers. What he did write about was Reagan and his politics.

I never knew Reagan the man or what he really believed, but what he said and who his audience was is significant. Maybe you could take issue with Reagan for willingly engaging in the perversion of the idea of state's rights instead of with people who point out his doing so.

Anonymous said...

This post warms the cockles of my heart :-)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, Proximo, glad you approve.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ 1:41 - First, why shouldn't Reagan launch his campaign at a fair with 10,000 fans screaming they want him? What does that prove?

And I do not dispute Reagan's poor history on race, which is quite well documented (as is the history of slavery, Jim Crow, etc., which don't require my re-stating). I said quite clearly Herbert was correct in so far as his arguments were limited to those who used states rights rhetoric to justify slavery and Jim Crow.

What I dispute is assumption that everyone who desires expanded "states rights," then or now, is simply using "code" to mask animosity for black people. It's not true, and that misguided slur has been the source of a great deal of bad politics and policy whenever people on the left frame the debate the way Herbert does.

Many people who support "states rights" aren't bigots, but if Herbert et. al. insist on calling them such, he won't find allies he needs when he wants to confront actual injustices today (what I'm more concerned about), as opposed to rhetorical slights from 27 years ago.

Anonymous said...

The point of the first quote I posted is that Reagan chose Neshoba as his first stop. It's not irrelevant that civil rights workers were murdered in Neshoba or that the KKK had bombed local churches. The audience matters. Knowing your audience matters, especially in a campaign. Of course Reagan knew this, both as a politician and an actor.

Candidates often make a statement when they choose locations for speeches or announcing their candidacies. Are you saying Reagan was too naive or uninformed to be aware of who his audience was or what "state's rights" can mean in a Southern context?

Please point out where the article you linked implies that the phrase "state's rights," outside of Reagan's speech and his audience, is understood to mean something sinister and regressive.

You said, "What I dispute is assumption that everyone who desires expanded "states rights," then or now, is simply using "code" to mask animosity for black people." Well, Herbert never said that. Who assumes what you say is being assumed? If Herbert makes the assumption elsewhere, point it out.

Anonymous said...


Interesting post. I've been following this debate about Reagan's 1980 speech and agree with you that Herbert's column is hardly "must read" material. Most of its substance is just a snotty and recycled version of Paul Krugman's blog reply to the initial defense of Reagan offered in the NYT by the conservative columnist David Brooks.

Krugman simply cites Reagan's long and distinguished record as an enemy of civil rights, and then questions Brooks' (IMO, dishonest) portrayal of Reagan's speech as an "innocent mistake."

I think it's impossible to separate Reagan's speech that day from this history.

However, I also think that non-racist supporters of state's rights have not done themselves any favors by allowing themselves to be associated with racists. There is a reason why this association is so strong in the minds of most historians and political observers.

I'm trying to resist turning this post into a long essay about constitutional history, I really am... maybe we can argue about this over those long-awaited beers, Grits.

However, here's a question for you. Are there moral imperatives that supercede the constitutional relationship between the federal and state governments? Jefferson thought so in his Kentucky Resolution, that was his whole argument, that the states could interpose their authority between citizens and the feds when the feds illegally infringed on individaul rights (in this case, the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798).

In that case, Jefferson argued that the moral imperative to protect individual rights from the feds called for an exertion of state authority.

Historically the shoe has usually been on the other foot. The feds have expanded their power through invoking moral imperatives, like ending slavery or protecting civil rights of various groups in society, not just African Americans.

So, again, do moral imperatives supercede federalism? What if Texas, for example, was sanctioning the abuse of kids in the juvie system? This was the case in the 1960s and 70s and it's why the DOJ and the federal courts intervened in Texas. Was that wrong, an unconstitutional arrogation of power? How long should we wait, how much individual suffering should we permit, before allowing fed intervention?

Just asking...

Bill Bush

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I already quoted it, 2:29. Herbert wrote that 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."

Though he used the passive voice to avoid making the direct accusation, the assumption is that Reagan's audience all understood this "code" and that their motive for espousing states rights and their enthusiastic response to its proclamation was entirely due to racism. As a supporter at that time who responded positively to Reagan's states rights message, IMO that allegation is false and a slur.

And Bill, I would argue that if the moral imperative is to protect constitutional rights, then yes states' rights may be superseded, especially after the passage of the 14th amdt. E.g., when the 8th amendment and the 10th, via the 14th, come into conflict over abuse of kids at TYC. However, NEW government power not granted in the Constitution, IMO, shouldn't be created in response to moral imperatives - that authority is reserved in the 10th and 9th amdts for the states and the people.

Rights sometimes conflict and frequently must be balanced. I just think that many liberals like Herbert are too quick to throw out the baby with the bathwater. best,

Anonymous said...

This sums up the article, I think:
"To see Reagan’s appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in its proper context, it has to be placed between the murders of the civil rights workers that preceded it and 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."

Reagan would have to have been extremely naive, a fool, or in an altered state of mind to not understand what the words "states' rights" would mean in that context. I'm sure "states' rights" never meant a free license to continue segregation to you. But even if Reagan didn't mean to sound like he supported racism (which I doubt), that he would even espouse such a racially-charged catchphrase as "states' rights" in that context should give one pause.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The guy was elected president twice, there's really nothing to "pause" for. I'm trying to convey what southerners who support states rights actually believe. If you're only capable of viewing the phrase through the lens of liberal stereotypes, there will be little I can do to counter that.

I granted the phrase meant what Herbert said it did. His error, IMO, is in failing to understand that it means much more.

Anonymous said...

Grits: IMO, your last sentence says it all. However, liberals and sometimes other fools like to use a broad brush to paint Southerners, or the great unwashed, as "ignorants". If only we could "understand" waht they mean. Thanks for standing up like a man.

Anonymous said...

Grits, your rant on your own blog reminds me of the scene from "History of The World, Part 1" where Mel Brooks, as a French King, sez "It's good ta be da King." You always get the last word, when you're king of the blog.

Had you have drawn more heavily on Krugman's slap down of Brooks, which pretty well established that Reagan was playing to the racist vote over a period of time, your conclusions may have been different.

The other posts have covered most of the points, so let me sum up: Either you, as a 17 year old supporter of Reagan were not paying all that much attention to what he was really saying (and who can blame you for that at age 17, when most of the blood in your body undoubtedly spent most of the time in a region somewhat lower down than the brain), or, he appealed to some racist tendencies you were not then aware of and are in denial about now.

As for state's rights, I agree with you that not all state's rights positions are racist positions, now, and not all state's rights advocates are racists. The best example of state's right being trampled now, by conservatives, are the various free-the-cannabis initiatives in various states that have pitted DEA against state law enforcement.

On the other hand, when some of Texas' greatest liberal jurists, such as Sam Houston Clinton, took the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to the position of saying that the Texas Constitution provided/protected more rights to the people of Texas than did the US Constitution, it was the conservatives in this State which went berserk, including conservative judges and Legislators. They just could not stand the position of Clinton and other jurists who found a greater right of privacy in State law than in Federal. I humbly suggest that such an anti-state's rights position was motivated in large part by racism.

Anonymous said...

"I granted the phrase meant what Herbert said it did. His error, IMO, is in failing to understand that it means much more."

I don't read Herbert's writing or know anything about his opinions. I'm just going by what's in the article and other things that were referenced in it and related material. For all I know, Herbert completely understands what you understand and just didn't communicate it.

The importance of preserving states' legitimate rights wasn't disputed by his article. He was responding to Reagan's apologists, if I understand correctly. So why should he delve into the issue of states' rights when it's a related, but not a core subject?

I understand your strong support for states' rights, but I can't say I understand your emotional and somewhat defensive reaction to an article discussing Reagan's cynical, pandering, and racist behavior and how it resonated with his chosen audience.

"I already quoted it, 2:29. Herbert wrote that 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.""

Did you live in a place like Neshoba County, where churches were bombed and civil rights leaders were murdered? If not, why do you think Herbert is speaking about you and your family?

Anonymous said...

Jefferson wasn't in the country when the constitution was written (it is primarily a Hamilton/Madison document). Otherwise an excellent post.

Anonymous said...

Oh heck, Herbert's just a jealous Yankee.

Anonymous said...

Not all proponents of state's rights are racists, as one person has noted, and not all of them have been from the South.

For example, in the 1830s and 40s, several Northern state legislatures passed "personal liberty laws" in defiance of a federal statute governing the identification and recapture of fugitive slaves who had escaped to the North.

These personal liberty laws required state and local officials to provide accused fugitives with a jury trial to prove their innocence, which the fed law had denied.

Guess who screamed bloody murder and insisted on the sovereign power of the federal government over the states? You got it, Southern supporters of slavery. In the same breath that they insisted on the Southern state's right to nullify a national tariff they deemed unconstitutionally high, they demanded that the Northern states obey federal law when it came to their own sacred cow, slavery.

This is why the Congress passed a new, stronger Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 that royally pissed off many white Northerners and helped radicalize many previously apathetic whites who had not cared much at all about the issue of slavery.

Again, I have to say that the historical record does not speak kindly for those who want to separate "states' rights" from slavery and Jim Crow segregation. I agree with those who say that it's unfair to tar all states' rights advocates as racists, and it should be taken issue by issue.

And it doesn't help at all to have smug Northern idiots like Herbert comment about "the South" as if they know anything about it. As someone who was mostly raised in the South, I can't stomach this stupidity and have learned to just ignore it.

But I'm afraid on the original issue of Reagan's use of the "Southern strategy," the evidence just isn't on the side of his defenders.

Bill Bush

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Did you live in a place like Neshoba County"


And Bill, I don't want to separate states rights from the story of segregation. That's history and I'd never deny it.

My argument is that states rights manifests itself in a panoply of issues, most completely legitimate and having nothing to do with slavery or segregation, and that the tendency to label all states right positions racist in modern political debates IMO does everyone a disservice. best,

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Oh, and the Jefferson quote was from the Kentucky Resolution, see the link in the text.

Anonymous said...


I agree:

Bush v. Gore - Supreme Court overrules Florida state recount citing equal opportunity clause of 14th amendment

Assisted suicide laws in states (Terry Schiavo)

The aforementioned War on Drugs

Even the recent Supreme Court decision overruling 2 local and state school integration plans in Seattle and Kentucky


Unknown said...

What about "law and order"? That was the twin "code word" for racism. I would believe in states' rights IF those who speak about it didn't selectively invoke it on racial issues. Where were the "states' rights" advocates on medical marijuana or assisted suicide??? So is law and order. It never seems to apply to public deceit and institutional government. Where were the "law and order" advocates when Watt was selling out to cronies at the Interior Department? We get these code word associations when those who invoke these terms do so in a very selective manner - picking and choosing their applications to pander to self-justification for their constituencies. There is a similar inconsistency with free speech and the liberal form of "politically correct". We shouldn't be punishing people for saying stupid things in a casual manner that offend groups of people.

Anonymous said...

Proximo lives??? Good to know he's still around. ATTICUS

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Not only does Proximo live (and lurk), but he's got warm cockles. :)

Anonymous said...

Words have many meanings, that's the gist here. When they said "state's rights" in the 1950s, although the words are the same as we use today, the meaning then was racial segregation, the right of a state to enforce their Jim Crow laws. Reagan knew his audience. As a 17-year old, you were probably thrilled to be there but Reagan wasn't talking to you. I agree that the enormous federal interference in state activities, particularly the drug war bs, is an evil, ugly thing. But had the federal government not intervened, would there still be "whites only" water fountains in certain places, among other things? (BTW I'm a 51 year TX native & had family in East TX)

Anonymous said...


Herbert's attitude about white southerners is nothing new. If you ever have time, go to the library and pull out a copy of "The Last Bus to Albuquerque"

It is not a new book, it is a compilation of of columns by Lewis Grizzard issued after his death in 1994. Page 162 addresses some of the misconceptions about white southerners and the role of an "over-bearing federal government". I offer this only as proof that the problem isn't new and as Lewis said in part "I'm a white man and a southerner...and I'm sick of being told what is wrong with me from outside critics..."

Alan Bean said...

Context is everything. While it is true that some Southerners had a nuanced and historically-rooted understanding of "sttes rights", a cursory reading of Southern newspapers during the period will demonstrate that the phrase was commonly used as racist code. When the words are uttered in that particular setting, the phrase is particularly significant. Hanging a noose in a tree may or not be a racist gesture; but, as in Jena, when the noose is hung a few hours after a black kid asks if he can sit under the tree, context kicks in mightily.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

So Alan, do you think that context justifies rejecting a more "nuanced and historically-rooted understanding of 'states rights'," or does that taint run so deep, in your mind, that the two cannot be separated?

Anonymous said...

Alan, even if the phrase 'state's rights' was interpreted as racist code all those years ago that doesn't automatically mean it means the same thing to the next generation. I don't know for sure about the other states in the south, but historically Texans don't like being told what to do even if they know they are in the wrong. We are amazingly defiant about being bossed around by 'outsiders'. Don't underestimate the size of the chip on our shoulders.

Alan Bean said...

Seventeen years isn't a long time. Reagan's audience knew precisely why he was there and what he was saying. Let's not be naive here. I am known as an "outside agitator" and even a "carpetbagger" by the good folks in Jena. They too know what they are saying. More code tapping.

Anonymous said...

Alan, let me suppose for a moment that it is true that the phrase 'state's rights' specifically means racism. If my generation does not even recognize the message as such it loses it's power. It is the same thing as having a conversation with another person while you are speaking two different languages--If I don't know what the other person is telling me then it is wasted effort on his part and has no effect on my actions or beliefs.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Actually, 27 years, but you're right. In historical terms, 140 years since the Civil War is not a long time - look how much of the nation's psychic and political framework is still wrapped up in those events!

Alan Bean said...

I was referring to the time lapse between Mississippi Burning and Reagan's speech. People hadn't forgotten.