States’ rights – it’s not just about the Klan

Community control of our quality of life is a driving force in our activism. But community control, historically and even today, has its down side. The competing agendas of federal, state and local governments and officials create bad outcomes, because when laws get jostled by circumstance, the result often winds up favoring the wealthy and powerful even more.

/By Woody Woodruff<>PM BlogSpace Report/ Local rights (sigh)… how do we deal with them?

Community control of our quality of life is a real concern, as evidenced by the continuing struggle in Prince George’s Port Towns over a concrete batching plant.

But local control has its down side, often. The terror of Jim Crow was a resurgence of the same “states’ rights” jargon that roiled the early history of the Republic and finally brought the US Civil War; the postwar lawlessness in the states of the former Confederacy was the petri dish for the development of the Klan and the debasement of the Democratic Party into the party of Southern resistance to equality.

Dr. King scorned the proponents of states’ rights, their “lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification,” and yet – the Civil Rights movement was a popular bottom-up uprising against the de facto Jim Crow of the post-World War II US, its schools still segregated, the military just beginning to integrate, the power structure still casually white supremacist even among members of the modernizing coastal Democratic Party. The legacy of the New Deal, still revered and preserved by those same Democrats today, had its sectors of shame – domestic and agricultural workers, overwhelmingly of color, excluded from Social Security; postwar US federal housing policy resolutely red-lining and hence segregationist to a degree that curses our communities with residential segregation to this day.

All those aspects of what we think of as enlightened modern policy had their links to persistent inequality.

Injustice lives at all levels of our society, it just shifts with the electoral winds. And so the latest battles over local rights come when local governments, particularly large cities, push back against injustice at the state level and federal level.

We were outraged over North Carolina’s state law on bathroom use, a cause celebre that (until a chastened Legislature pulled back somewhat) cost the state millions in convention business and a lost NBA All-star Game in a state where basketball has near-religious cachet. We may forget that the original impetus for that law was bigoted Republican legislators clamping down on a gender-identification statute in Charlotte that allowed transgender persons freedom to choose facilities on their own.

Provocations like that have ballooned under the Trump regime, which is rolling back improvements in everyone’s quality of life. Cities and even states are fighting back. But as David A. Graham writes in The Atlantic, bad things are still happening, particularly in states where Republicans control all branches of government.

As Graham put it in a piece reposted in Route Fifty, “there has been a major wave of state preemption laws around the country in recent years, the fruit of an era in which cities—even in traditionally conservative areas like the Deep South—are increasingly liberal, while conservative Republicans hold unprecedented control of state governments.”

Most recently, the Missouri legislature rolled back the city of St. Louis’s hard-won $10 minimum wage – modest compared to Seattle and other cities’ victories in the “Fight for $15” – to $7.70.

Some of it is partisan score-settling, some bigotry – and some is purely turf-consciousness, with state legislators pinned between the feds and their cities and counties trying to hold on to power. But the tilt of events in the reversing by largely white Republican legislative majorities of the actions of largely black big cities like St. Louis is a disturbing but clear trend.

Does Blue Maryland escape this? No – a Democratic (!) legislator, Prince George’s powerful Del. Derek E. Davis, introduced a bill in the 2017 Assembly session that would have pre-empted local county governments like Montgomery, or Baltimore city, from raising the minimum wage beyond that set by the legislature for the state.

Davis is chair of the powerful House Economic Matters Committee, where pro-worker bills traditionally go to die, year after year, at the hands of a largely conservative though Democratic-dominated committee.

“Under the measure — which is similar to laws in place in Oklahoma, Alabama, South Carolina, Texas and Missouri — local governments could only set base pay for their own employees,” the WaPo reported.

Pushback was immediate and loud, and the bill went nowhere. Counties wanted more autonomy, regardless of their generosity or lack of it, and advocates for working families like Progressive Maryland expressed outrage as well.

But the episode showed that these struggles are not limited to Republican-dominated Red states but can crop up anywhere that the turf wars of federal, state and local officials intervene in favor of business and against working families.

The argument over states’ rights, or local rights, gets pretty fraught because of these competing agendas but should not mask the fact that power yields nothing without a demand, even when the officials appear to be on your side. Pre-emptive behavior like this on the part of those officials requires a good deal of vigilance.