Updated: Sep 19, 2022
Question what people really mean
Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on August 25, 2022)
Author: Dr. RL Booker
Editor: Veronica Mobley
The conversation around states’ rights has once again been thrust to the forefront of our focus in these polarized times. There are many issues that are up for debate such as a woman’s body autonomy, teaching the full history of America, and gun rights. While I believe that there are some positive and productive policies that have come about because of states’ rights, we cannot overlook the many atrocities that were committed by people who used states’ rights to target minoritized communities. Today, we are seeing politicians like Ted Cruz, a sitting U.S. Senator from Texas, and Marcus Ruiz Evans, a liberal activist in California, calling for states to secede from the union so that states can do as they wish without any intrusion from the federal government. I believe that before anyone can proudly proclaim that they are for states' rights, they must first understand the origin and the implications of only having states’ rights.
The first constitution that the founders drafted were the Articles of Confederation in 1777. This constitution gave each state one equal vote. Because this was created on the heels of the revolutionary war and the fact that the executive and judicial branches of government had not yet been created, the document was filled with contemporary imperfections. Eventually, this led to the first insurrection in our nation’s history, the Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, which consisted of citizens such as angry farmers rising up to protest tax increases. This uprising sent the nation into political chaos, which prompted the founders to meet again in 1787 and draft a new constitution that divided powers between the state and federal governments. This is known as federalism. While this shift brought about incremental governmental balance for those who were recognized as citizens, the country was headed toward civil war because many still refused to acknowledge the humanity of enslaved Black people who were kidnapped from their homeland and Indigenous people who had their land stolen.
Southern states were fighting for the right to do as they pleased without intrusion from the federal government. Ironically, at the same time, these states were intruding on the lives of black, brown, and indigenous peoples by forcing them to work for free in dire conditions. In the 2018 book, When Rape was Legal: The Untold Story of Sexual Violence during Slavery, the author, Dr. Rachel A. Feinstein explored how “the rape of enslaved Black women during slavery era was commonplace; however, it continues to be a feature of American history which is ignored.” Enslaved women, whether married to another enslaved person or not, were often subjected to rape and brutal sexual acts at the hands of their enslaver. If that enslaved woman then gave birth to her enslaver's child, like in the 1855 Missouri case of Celia (14 years old) and Robert Newsom (60 years old), the child by law would then take on the status of the mother, which was that of an enslaved person. This is a fact about states’ rights that can't be wished away or whitewashed just because it does not comfortably fit one’s narrative.
On March 21, 1861, the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, gave the cornerstone speech where he explicitly stated that the cornerstone of our government, “rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man and that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” As you read this, I ask you to pause and think about what you were doing when you were 8 years old. Imagine that you are a Black American and how you would feel as you heard these piercing words from the vice president of the Confederacy. My third great-grandmother, Sallie Ann Dortch, was 8 years old at the time of this speech and I often wonder how she would view state’s rights today. In a modern-day society where you have state representatives speaking about seceding from the union, it would be best if we listened to those who have explored succession.
Daniel Farber, Constitutional Law Professor at UC Berkeley, stated that no state can secede from the union because it is not legally possible. Others like Richard Kreitner, journalist, and author of Break it Up, espouse that succession may be necessary to end the manifold of injustices such as racism, denial of reproductive health, income inequality, and more. While I am still actively interrogating my personal views on states’ rights, let’s assume we actualized state succession. What would happen to those states that are the most reliant on federal funds for their yearly state budgets? A few of these states are Montana, Louisiana, Alaska, Kentucky, West Virginia, Mississippi, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Wyoming. In 2021, these states received at least 25% of their annual state budget from the federal government.
Despite the shortcomings of some federal programs, what would happen to the millions of people or institutions that benefit from Medicare/Medicaid, federally funded grant programs, VA hospitals, interstate highways, and social security? For those states that decide to secede, all those and many other programs and protections, such as our nation's military, would immediately go away. I am calling on my fellow citizens to wake up to the reality that none of us is all the way for states’ rights or complete federal control. When you hear politicians or activists calling for states’ rights, I implore you to interrogate whether they are advocating for a balance of power which fights for the humanity of all their constituents or if they are pushing for full state autonomy to do as they please with their citizens.
Rachel, A. (2019). When rape was legal: The untold history of sexual violence during slavery. Routledge.