On the "states rights" codeword

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on December 19, 2002

Steven Hayward over at National Review Online has a piece defending former president Ronald Reagan from the false and frivolous racism charges with which some race-baiters have tried to tar as many Republicans as they can.

To be sure, it is difficult to imagine that Reagan was oblivious to the historical baggage of the phrase "states' rights" in Mississippi, and it cannot be ruled out that he was conscious of the problematic implication of his choice of words, just as Jimmy Carter was not presumed innocent of his use of "ethnic purity" in 1976. But "states' rights" was a sound principle of federalism that was debased by Democratic party rule in the south, for which it is not Republicans who owe an apology. Reagan had a long and well-known record of criticizing centralized government power, and this is how the media at the time interpreted his statement. "Most of those at the rally," the New York Times reported, "apparently regarded the statement as having been made in that context." And as a westerner Reagan had fully associated himself with the "Sagebrush Rebellion," for whom "states' rights" had no racial content, but rather meant wresting control of land from Washington. This was far from an outlandish or minority view. The same day Reagan made his "states' rights" remark in Mississippi, the National Governors Association issued what the Associated Press described as "a militant call for reduced federal involvement in state and local affairs." Arizona's liberal Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt wrote in a New York Times op-ed article that "It is time to take hard look at 'states' rights' -- and responsibilities -- and to sort out the respective functions of the federal government and the states." I missed where Jack White added Babbitt to his roster of racists (never mind Carter's calculated appeal to "ethnic purity" in 1976).

To liberals, however, employing the phrase "states' rights" in any context is to waive the bloody shirt of racism and segregation. Little time was wasted in accusing Reagan not simply of pandering to old-fashioned segregationist sentiment in the south, but of actively sympathizing with it. Patricia Harris, Carter's secretary of Health and Human Services, told a steelworkers' union conference in early August: "I will not attempt to explain why the KKK found the Republican candidate and the Republican platform compatible with the philosophy and guiding principles of that notorious organization."

Go read the entire thing.

On a related note: James Carville has forgiven Trent Lott. I still think Lott should step down as majority leader, but I also think the man has "apologized" enough.

Carville, also a co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," faxed a letter to Lott's office Wednesday, both accepting the senator's apology and pledging not to criticize him further for comments made recently or for comments Lott has made in the past on the issue of race.

"If, as you have claimed, your recent troubles have truly spurred you to seek redemption and find ways to improve race relations in this country, I applaud you," Carville wrote.

"Remember, Senator, we all make errors. Committing errors is not a tragedy, but failing to learn from them is a grave one. You say you've learned. I believe you. That settles it."

I seldom agree with Carville, but he's done the right thing. It would be nice if others would follow his lead.


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December 2002



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