“How Is It That We Hear the Loudest Yelps for Liberty Among the Drivers of Negroes?”

cross-posted from U.S. of J

Adam Serwer has more on Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s announcement that April is Confederate History Month:

The “state’s rights” in question involved the ownership of black people, and the “federal intrusion” the Confederacy opposed was the efforts of the federal government to secure the rights of black Americans. Through the distance of time, veneration of the Confederacy has become part of white identity politics, an self-defining act of cultural grievance that locates one within the boundaries of a political culture where being authentically American is premised on being white — or at least on acceptance of that concept. McDonnell is signaling to these people that he is one of them, or that he is sympathetic to their views.

I really wish we could retire the phrase “states’ rights.” Not only does it obscure the chief underlying issue behind the Civil War — slavery — but it is a huge rhetorical concession to Confederates and their present-day sympathizers. Invoking “states’ rights” allows Confederate sympathizers to present themselves as principled defenders of local autonomy and freedom, which is complete bunk. In the years preceding the Civil War, southerners used every available tool to maintain and expand slavery, including the power of the federal government.

The Fugitive Slave Act used the force of the federal law to protect slaveowners as they crossed state-lines and dragged free blacks and escaped slaves back into bondage. In the decade leading up to the war, slaveowners demanded that the federal government protect the legal expansion of slavery, and proposed constitutional amendments aimed at preserving slavery for the duration. States’ rights were almost only invoked when the federal government took action against slavery, or even towards maintaining the status quo. Indeed, for more than a century country’s, white supremacists rallied to the banner of “states’ rights” whenever the federal government took steps to protect its black citizens from political disenfranchisement, economic exploitation, and terrorist violence.

There is absolutely nothing principled about “states’ rights,” and I pray for the day when we can cut the bullshit, and acknowledge that “states’ rights” is little more than an elaborate cover for white supremacy.


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • I agree with the general thrust of the post–that “states’ rights” is often invoked today as cover for Confederate sympathy, a rhetoric of xenophobia and nativism, and as an articulation of white pride. Moreover, you get to one of the most important ironies in proslavery thought and politics: namely, it was actually FEDERAL power that was used to protect the continuation of the institution–whether it was the apportionment of taxes and representations , the fugitive slave clause in the original Constitution, the Missouri and 1850 Compromises, etc. Unlike the Articles of Confederation which empowered the states and outlined a weak central government, the Constitution had greater proslavery (and antislavery) potential and the “states” and slaveholders wielded it mightily.

    That said, the final bit of the post is factually inaccurate. States’ rights has been invoked for more than white supremacy. The nullification crisis during the Jackson administration is just one of the more prominent examples. States Rights also applies to the state having the ability to regulate and/or certify marriages, lotteries, DMV, elections, etc. (Of course, there is the supremacy clause which gives the federal government ultimately authority on certain issues, but the courts have maintained that in a number of civil affairs, states are best to regulate them.) Now, if you are exclusively talking about the rhetoric of states’ rights, there is something to the fact that it is mostly used in the way you speak. But, there are enumerated (i.e. literal) states’ rights and to say that its exclusive domain was/is race and slavery is not fully the case.

  • Nice post. I would only add that there are real advocates of ‘states rights’ who are not implicitly referring to the Confederacy, Jim Crow, or white supremacy and are legitimately for limited/decentralized government (which isn’t necessarily a ‘conservative’ point of view). The problem (in my eyes) is that the honest advocates know that the ‘states rights’ language also appeals to racists – and sometimes turn a blind eye to what those groups mean when they talk about ‘states rights’.

    • Nice post, and one of the interesting things about having lived in VA is the lingering Confed pride in a lot of the state. I mean, its freaking next to DC, basically on the edge of the Mason-Dixon line, and Northern Virginia is basically Yankee anyways… how the hell did it maintain itself as a bastion of genteel southern whiteness? Sigh, but I digress.

      The issue of states rights is an interesting one, because at the theoretical level its crucial for having a federal system of government. On the other hand the phrase is so tainted and loaded that people tend not to agree on the issue itself (is legalizing gay marraige in a state an example of states rights? what about introducing its own government health-care plan?). Is it even worth saving as a phrase (I think the idea is a good one at least), or should we start talking about ‘local rights’? I dunno, I guess the people who are loudest in defending it do not really know what it means and are dumbasses, but I do not think we can fault the phrase.

      PS These people are dying out and being replaced by nonwhites and yankees, in 30 years one will not be able to mount any sort of moral defense of the Confederacy (aka those effin traitors). I find that prospect heartening. Crank up the death panels Obama!

      • April

        Actually, Maryland is on the edge of the Mason-Dixon line. Also, the notion that Virginia isn’t Southern is false, especially to any boomer who remembers government-enforced, segregated life in that state.

        As for whether or not “states’ rights” is a useful term, I think the principle of having powers delegated to the states is already nicely covered by the term “federalism.” Anyone who invokes “states’ rights” and then balks at any racist connotation is either disingenuous or dangerously clueless.

        • i said it was basically at the edge, i know about md :). and the idea that virginia isnt southern NOW is not quite so far off considering the expansion of northern virginia and immigration in the state. im not talking about c-ville ir richmond, but alexandria. and the power that northern virginia has over the rest of the state IS an issue (i remember when I went to JMU and the pres of the school was asked why so many northern virginians attended, and he said its because NoVA had the best schools. the person with the question was not happy).

          i disagree with you on how federalism is used or interpreted. i mean, the federalist papers argued for the constitution. the federalist party wanted a stronger federal government. feds are fbi agents. any word with ‘federal’ in it is probably not going to work.

          meh, its whatever.

  • Serwer’s “(the) veneration of the Confederacy has become part of white identity politics, a self-defining act of cultural grievance that locates one within the boundaries of a political culture where being authentically American is premised on being white— or at least on acceptance of that concept” has particular resonance for me as a second generation Arab American. Serwer is right in that this defines a particular, perverse nostalgia for the Confederacy but it also describes the message about “American” identity in general that immigrants get, at least in my experience. I thought about this recently when faced with a census form that by default counted me “white.” I thought, “Sure, when they want to keep their numbers up THEN they want me.” If the consequences for Arabs (and by extension racialized Muslims) weren’t so dire it would be funny.

    I agree that the discourse around the phrase “state’s rights” is haunted by white supremacy but @Invisman and @Jamaal are right: it is employed in a lot of conservative arguments, most recently around the health care and same-sex marriage debates. I don’t think that negates Jamelle’s point at all though. Instead I think it shows just how deeply ingrained racism is in a particular kind of conservative thought.

  • All I have to say is “Amen!” Well said. *standing o!*

  • Leigh

    I would actually qualify “Through the distance of time, veneration of the Confederacy has become part of white identity politics, an self-defining act of cultural grievance that locates one within the boundaries of a political culture where being authentically American is premised on being white — or at least on acceptance of that concept.”

    to say “Southern white identity politics.” This is a very regional expression of white identity politics. And totally abhorrent.

  • I grew up in Washington, D.C. in the 1960’s, when they “celebrated” the Civil War Centennial. In grades 3,4,5 and 6 you were either a Yankee or a Rebel. The Virginia kids were Rebels and talked about “Bull Run,” and the Maryland kids tended Yankee and talked about “Manassas.” The foreign kids and the black kids were uniformly Yankee, except for one kid from France who kept switching sides and giving erudite reasons and annoying everybody. We had a rumble about it and the Yankees won; but the Rebels lied and said they won. Here’s my rant: http://lawyerworldland.blogspot.com/2010/04/confederate-history-month.html

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