States' rights redux

It's being invoked again to turn back progress on minority and women's rights

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An ugly combination of racism and sexism hiding behind the old states' rights argument is trying to move American social policy backwards in time toward a less participatory, less progressive period in the nation's history.

The sentiment behind this tendency is not held by the majority of Americans. It tends instead to be found in small pockets of the country, sheltering a minority view. It tends to be found especially among rich, white men, people who hold a disproportionate amount of the economic and political power in America. The results of the last elections and demographic data indicate, however, that the country will take another direction.

These people put their money on Mitt Romney -- enormous amounts. He and other ultra-conservative, old, white candidates whom they backed lost anyway, perhaps because voters realized they don't have most people's best interests in mind. They think instead of the Cayman Islands and other offshore "investment opportunities," exporting American jobs to maximize their profits and keeping the tax code tilted to advantage their sources of income. One example: Keep taxing capital gains at lower rates than wages.

They will continue to lose due to America's changing demographics. Women now vote in greater numbers than men, and the percentage of voters of Hispanic, Asian and African-American heritage continues to grow.

Rich, white males aren't stupid, and thus they are taking dead aim at cutting down the number of minorities who can vote and making life in general more difficult for women. They are doing so by taking advantage of the small, dark corners of this country they still control.

One of these is the U.S. Supreme Court, still dominated by appointees of less forward-looking presidents from a different epoch. Others are backward places such as Alabama and Arkansas.

The court is sheltered by a constitution written in 1787. The others are sheltered by a certain way of reading states' rights into the Constitution, a point of view whose high point was pre-Civil War when some states cited as one of their rights the right to own slaves.

Today's anti-right-to-vote racists seek to reduce voting by poor, less-educated people, among whom African Americans form a larger percentage than they do of the overall population. The Democrat-Republican thing might enter into it, since the Republican Party is the one short of votes on a national level. It might thus seek to reduce the number of voters overall to make its own minority loom larger.

What it is really about, though, is rich, white men using the Supreme Court, where they still prevail, to limit the number of poor people who can vote, in part by attacking the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This effort was initiated by another area where they still prevail -- Shelby County, Ala.

Discussion at the Supreme Court was revealing, and was not among the great moments of American democracy. Probably the worst was when Justice Antonin Scalia called the landmark act -- a landmark in the advancement of American democracy -- "a perpetuation of racial entitlement." His colossal ignorance, and the level of his being out of touch with most of contemporary America, was revealed by the word "racial." Justice Scalia seems to think that only non-white Americans get turned away at the ballot box by devices such as the requirement for photo-ID cards, which, by the way, the state government of allegedly reasonable Pennsylvania is still trying to impose on its citizens.

If the Supreme Court throws out the core of the 1965 voting rights law, it will have succeeded in rolling back the expansion of voting rights in this country by at least 48 years. It will be interesting to see how the court's sole African-American justice, Clarence Thomas, will vote. Will he stand with conservative whites, as Chief Justice Roger B. Taney did in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, or will he honor his own people, voting in the line of the great Thurgood Marshall, whom he is alleged to have succeeded?

What next? Disenfranchise women?

I find it hard to get over the fact that women didn't get the vote in this country until 1920 -- my mother couldn't expect to vote when she was born. But the same old white men are still hacking away at their rights.

We have just been commemorating the 50th anniversary of the women's rights movement -- Gloria Steinem, "Ms." magazine, bra-burning, "glass-ceiling" smashing. At the same time, some in America, in the name of states' rights and backed up by religious faith -- which, by the way, is supposed to be excluded from U.S. political life -- are chopping away at women's rights through anti-choice legislation. The legislature of Arkansas, for instance, voted to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The governor vetoed the bill, calling it unconstitutional under Roe v. Wade. The legislature voted to override his veto.

One of the principal but largely unaired issues in the last presidential election was the fervent hope of American troglodytes that Mitt Romney would have the chance to replace some of the Supreme Court's more doddering justices. If he had won, the protection afforded women's reproductive rights by Roe v. Wade, dating to 1973, would have been taken away.

It didn't happen, so other dark pockets of resistance to progress, such as the Arkansas legislature, serve as the front-line troops -- bad metaphor, the rear guard -- battling to keep women out of American public life.

Do these people not want America to move ahead toward a more just, more equal society? Don't they see the enormous benefits to the country of full participation in its political and economic life by men and women of all ethnicities? The rest of us must push back hard.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).


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