That War for Democracy? It's in the State Legislatures
Discrimination has always depended on states’ rights. When waging a fight against racism and the forces currently poised to destroy every last one of our rights, start waging it in the state capitols
Dr. G.S. Potter | Senior Editor
Discrimination has always depended on states’ rights. When white supremacists fought to uphold slavery in the United States, they strategically viewed a military battle over states’ rights as the strongest pathway forward. When those same Confederates lost the military battle, they used states’ rights to birth Jim Crow and a new political war against Black folks. Because the 14th Amendment created federal protections from discrimination for many other classes of targets of white supremacy like other people of color, people from the LGBTQIA+ community, migrants, people with disabilities, women, and religion and once the Civil Rights movement and the Civil Rights Act broke the back of Jim Crow, the white supremacists refocused their efforts to maintain power to discriminate at the state level. While these efforts continue, they didn’t regain the mainstream and national prominence they enjoyed during the era of Jim Crow and the height of the Confederacy until the rise of Trump and MAGA.
It was the success of Confederate efforts that places states’ rights ahead of community safety during the height of a global pandemic and led to the deaths of over 1 million people. It was the success of Confederate efforts that removed the right to privacy and equal protections for women’s health care and abortion. States’ rights have been used to enact waves of voter suppression, advancing the Confederate goal to undo the 15th Amendment and Jim Crow’s goals of destroying the Voting Rights Act. The chokehold of right-wing polarization continues to stymie most of the progress that could be made at the federal level on issues surrounding wages, criminal justice reform, gun reform, education, climate justice, housing and reparations. Meanwhile, the key battlegrounds for rights, equality and progress are being waged at the state level.
Watch Your State Capitol
We are well into a new era in the strategic battle between the Confederacy and the Union - and the most important players hold offices in the state legislature. In many states, for example, the cold wars for voting rights will occur between state legislators, governors and secretaries of state. The fights for women’s rights will be held between legislators, governors and attorney generals. The struggles to combat gun violence, inflation, and poverty will hall have to be tackled by the states while Congress is stalled out. All of these issues will involve the input and authority of state level courts.
With states’ rights battles against the rights of protected groups inherently weighted to the advantage of Confederates, Crows, and current white supremacists, state legislators of color play pivotal roles in both 1) strategically defending disadvantaged communities from state level strategies and 2) advancing the rights of their constituents using those same legislative and leverage-based tools.
Unfortunately, though, the education system has done more to deny people access to a civics education than it has done to advance our nation’s understanding of it. As a result, many people don’t know what kind of power their state officials hold, let alone how it can and must be used to protect and promote the rights of communities of color. According to a 2018 Johns Hopkins University survey, more than 50 percent of the population did not know if their state legislature is comprised of one or two houses. More than half did not know whether their state had a Constitution or not. And most people didn’t know if their chief justices were appointed or elected in their respective state.
That’s not surprising: 44 percent of Americans - nearly half - can’t name all three branches of government have been unable to attain the most basic levels of civic literacy and only 12 percent of students leave high school with a basic proficiency in history. The Nation’s Report Card finding is more disturbing: just 15 percent of 8th graders in the last 2018 history survey were at or above proficient in U.S. history. These numbers are even lower in communities of color that continue to struggle against educational racism and injustice. So it should come as no surprise that people in the United States, especially people who haven’t been cosplaying reenactments of the Civil War in their backyards and flying Confederate flags in their offices, are just now starting to see the importance and impact of state level public officials as it plays out in real time. The prominence of organizations that represent them is also coming into focus. We are finally starting to see what we are up against, what is at stake, and how we need to organize in response.
The Importance of Alliance
We, as a united coalition of people protected under the 14th Amendment, need to come together to advance policies and protections for all people in common ways. We also need to understand that the use of policy to advance the agendas of white supremacists has played out differently with different communities. For example, the white supremacist genocide, displacement, and containment of Indigenous peoples was implemented and sustained through policies and practices that were very different from those that advanced slavery and Jim Crow. The racist state level policies and practices that exploit and degrade Latino communities are very different from those that are used to discriminate against Black communities. There are many places where these anti-BIPOC strategies intersect, but there are very important strategic intricacies and political histories that must be recognized. Without this recognition and understanding, we are all left vulnerable to recreating the most racist wheels even with the most benevolent of intents.
Fortunately, there are organizations like the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the National Caucus of Hispanic State Legislators and the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators that can serve as experts in state level strategies as applied to their respective communities. They are also positioned to coordinate responses that can best protect and provide for them, especially in the current context of Confederate advancement. We should be turning to them for, and demanding from them, organized coordinated efforts to educate their respective communities on the war that is currently being waged by white supremacists at the state level, the histories of these battles, and the role they should be proud to play in leading the charge against them. As constituents, we need must be electing leaders of color that are eager and willing to do this work on behalf of their own communities, and in solidarity with others.
We allowed white supremacists to take over the White House in 2016. We’ve allowed them to advance in Congress. And we have allowed them to take full control of the Supreme Court. Until we can undo this damage and reverse the backwards trajectory our federal rights have taken, the battles for equality and Democracy will be waged at the state level. The people with the most authority to protect or endanger our lives and livelihoods will be occupying state offices. The people responsible for strategically navigating this historic battle against white supremacy and the Confederacy will be operating through the states. We need to know who they are. We need to know what they do. We need to know how they plan to protect and provide for us. And if they don’t want to come to us, we need to go to them now.