Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Long Shadow of History

Gunnar Myrdal called it the "American Dilemma". The American idea of race is, like all understandings of "race", unique and historically contingent; and for America, the load-bearing pillar of "race" is the divide between Black and White. At various points the Irish, Poles, Jews, or Hispanics have had important roles to play as well. But these concerns have been more transitory and less fundamental than the "Black/White idea".

One of the most important reasons why the Black/White idea has been so immutable is that it has been irrevocably tied up with so much of the rest of our identity. The American idea of liberty can never rid itself of its relationship with chattel slavery. Not only did some of the greatest proponents of human liberty actually own slaves, but these proponents made clear in no uncertain terms their failing or at least their inconsistency on the question.

The Black/White idea was driven even deeper into American identity as George Washington's worries about sectional animosities between East and West were, within a generation, replaced with far greater sectional differences between North and South. While the East-West division that flared up in armed rebellion soon after independence was purely a struggle between white Americans, the later North-South division couldn't avoid entanglement with the White/Black idea. Whatever the causes of the Civil War (and I am one that thinks it's entirely appropriate to discount the extent to which many people claim it was simply a "war over slavery"), one thing remains absolutely clear: the power, entitlement, legislative dominance, and identity of the antebellum South was crucially dependent on the enslavement of black Americans.

This struggle, and repeated episodes afterwards from Appomattox to the Civil Rights Act, began to fuse racism and the Black/White idea to the concept of "states' rights". Never mind the fact that the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was also a secessionist (albeit for the North). The Confederacy beat him to it, and since then assertive states have been associated with racism. If history had gone slightly differently and Garrison had gotten his way, assertive state governments could have been associated with abolitionism. Calls for secession of the North also appeared when Texas - a slave state - enthusiastically joined the Union in 1845.

But history casts a long shadow, particularly the history of the Black/White idea as it relates to states' rights. As a result, Arkansas has remained on the sidelines of the legal fight over the health insurance mandate that is being waged by several state attorney generals. The sordid history of states' rights is especially sensitive for Arkansas, which defied the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling, when Governor Faubus refused to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Faubus called up the Arkansas National Guard to prevent integration. After attempting to talk him down, President Eisenhower responded by sending the 101st Airborne into Little Rock, and federalizing the Arkansas National Guard (yes, that second one is unequivocally constitutional, Tea Partiers).

Many states have defied federal authority in the past, but Arkansas was one of the few states in recent history who has had the "burnished rows of steel" at the disposal of the federal government arrayed against their assertion of states' rights. Understandably, the state is not jumping at the chance to defy the federal government again (the fact that its current governor is a Democrat probably influences this as well, although he also cites this history).

I think all this baggage carried by "states' rights" is understandable and it should be acknowledged, but it's also very unfortunate. It hamstrings legitimate assertions of states' rights and valuable progress at the state level. The fact is, there is no inherent reason to believe that everything is best done by the federal government. The federal government doesn't make that sort of blanket claim, of course, but what is a state to do in the instances when the federal government does make that claim for itself? Often, fear or precedent ensure that the default solution is a federal solution. I think this is extremely unhealthy for our democracy. What's even more unhealthy is that the gut reaction of many people seems to be either to (1.) fully acknowledge the darker history of states' rights and insist that all modern assertions of states' rights are racist, or (2.) pretend that the darker history of states' rights doesn't even exist and assume that all assertion of state authority over federal authority is innocent, legitimate, and ideal. Neither of these positions are intelligent or helpful. Unfortunately, you usually hear one or the other.

Last year, I wrote about a specific case in Maryland, in the 1960s, where knee-jerk reactions to the idea of "states' rights" scuttled potentially valuable reform that is near and dear to my heart. You may want to take a look at that as well.

Note: Rockwell's iconic painting depicts an incident in

New Orleans, not the incident in Little Rock

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