Are States’ Rights More Important Than Human Rights?
“If you don’t like it here, move!” This phrase has been used by pundits, politicians, and overzealous religious leaders in the United States for as long as I can remember. It used to be reserved for people who “hate America” but lately it’s taking an ominous turn that prods disenfranchised citizens to become refugees from their own home states. I’ve been seeing it more and more in online comments as the nationwide battle over women’s reproductive rights, gay marriage, race equality, and religious freedom blazes its way through the primary season and into the general election. The popular sentiment appears to be turning toward an America made up of a disjointed patchwork of equality laws. An America where if you don’t “fit in” it’s your own fault. An America where “States’ Rights” reign supreme.
Ron Paul has built much of his grassroots mystique around this notion and it sounds good to people on both sides of the political spectrum that feel their local values shouldn’t be dictated by someone in Washington. It sounds great to everyone but those outside of the local majority. If your faith, color, or sexuality doesn’t match up with regional ideals, that simple notion of “States’ Rights” is a life sentence of oppression, poverty, and abuse. States’ rights is more than a combination of words, it’s a tool used by racists and zealots to, like petulant children, throw fits against the will of the American majority in favor of local traditions.
Perhaps the most famous stand off in States’ Rights was the fallout from Brown vs. The Board of Education. In May of 1957 the Supreme Court declared racially segregated schools to be unconstitutional. In September of that same year nine black students attempted to enter their new High School for the first time. They were met by the Arkansas National Guard blocking their entry on orders of Governor Orval Faubus. President Eisenhower warned the Governor to remove the Guard and comply with the court’s ruling. When he didn’t, Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army to protect those nine children from their state’s own government. I’m proud that on that day our federal authority was able to stand up to Arkansas and meet military force with military force to defend innocent children. I fear a day when we’d have to watch, helpless, as a single state decides to take up arms against its own people again.
States’ Rights” was also used to support a glut of atrocious civil-rights movement legislation like California’s (overturned) Proposition 14, which made it legal to racially discriminate in the sale of homes. It was used to raise the Confederate flag, a symbol of shame and bloodshed from a dark time in our nation’s history, over several state capitals, and it’s being used today to strip Americans of the legal protections they’ve enjoyed for decades.
Two modern examples of States’ Rights being used as an attack on ethnic minorities are the numerous citizenship checkpoints which dot the interior of South-Western states and Arizona’s identification check laws enacted in 2010 which allows police officers to demand proof of citizenship from any person at any time. When my wife and I were stopped on a recent drive through New Mexico so that we could have our citizenship checked our hearts sank for every person living in that state who doesn’t “look” American. Their daily experience is built around the type of racial exceptionalism that hasn’t been so publicly flaunted since the time of Jim Crow.
This debate doesn’t just affect ethnic minorities. We’ve already started to see waves of women crossing state borders to seek reproductive healthcare. This year several states have enacted or proposed laws against women’s rights, including restricting access to RU-486 “morning after” pills and some inventive anti-abortion legislation. In Mississippi, Governor Phil Bryant recently signed a bill into law that would further threaten the state’s only licensed abortion clinic and make victims of violent sexual crime resulting in pregnancy consider unsafe alternatives.
When we read these headlines we have to consider what it means to us in other parts of the country. Do those people really want to live under those conditions? The answer is no, in fact 58% of the people of the state of Mississippi rejected similar legislation last year. Despite the will of the people the government of Mississippi is thumbing its nose at those who live there in pursuit of its own agenda.
For many there’s no escape. The facts are that 22% of the women of Mississippi live below the poverty line and Mississippi ranks in the bottom 10 of college graduation rates by state. They have neither the means, nor the support, to relocate themselves and their loved ones to a place that respects their way of life. This is why it’s so important that we don’t give up on the federal system. It may not be perfect, but it’s the only weapon we have to put pressure on rogue states that blatantly attack the values that we hold dear as a united people.
It’s simple to write off states like Arizona, New Mexico, Mississippi, and every other place on the map that fills the gap between the coasts as “Red States” and somehow less of a problem for those of us who dwell on the Pacific or in the North East, but doing that generalizes people in need. Not every person in those states is represented by their government and the less we recognize the daily struggle of outsiders in their own communities the less ground we cover in making social progress. We need to fight for the people in those states who can’t afford to move. We need to fight for the people who shouldn’t have to move. It’s our responsibility to make sure their rights are protected as Americans. The more we grow complacent toward the idea of individual states having sovereign authority to oppress our fellow citizens the harder we’re making the lives of the people who are working for change in their local areas. The next time you hear someone advocating for States’ Rights, ask them where they stand on human rights.