Black Politics — State vs. Nation Centered Power, Part 2: Strategy Implications on Black Politics

National-Centered Power gives greater authority
and responsibility to the federal government. Generally speaking, nation centered powers
are limited to those specified in the Constitution. As it relates to black politics, the so-called
“Reconstruction Amendments” that were introduced into the Constitution after the Civil War
are probably the most significant. These are the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth
amendments to the constitution. The thirteenth amendment stated in part that
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the United States…” but significantly,
it goes on to say “… except as punishment for a crime.” Thus, the formal institution of slavery was
effectively abolished, but many states found ways of maintaining control over black bodies
and black labor by essentially criminalizing blackness and subjecting newly freed men and
women to constitutionally sanctioned involuntary servitude. The 14th Amendment to the constitution ostensibly
provided citizenship for former slaves and equal treatment and equal protection under
the law. The fifteenth amendment provides that “the
right to vote shall not be abridged on account of race, national origin, creed, color or
previous condition of servitude.” I give a much more detailed assessment of
the limitations of the 13th 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution in a separate
video, so for more on that, check out a previous episode by clicking the link below. For the purpose of this discussion, however,
it would suffice to say that although the reconstruction amendments are specifically
designated in the Constitution and thus apply to all the states in the union, their effectiveness
is largely limited to the degree to which states have flexibility in terms of how the
spirit of these constitutional revisions are implemented. The new Deal programs also greatly expanded
the reach of the federal government. In the 1930s, the economic catastrophe known
as the Great Depression proved to be a disaster a that the states themselves were ill-equipped
to deal with. Largely due to the powers granted the federal
government by the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution, the Roosevelt administration
embarked on an extensive series of programmatic efforts to stimulate the economy. Such efforts included rebuilding and revitalizing
interstate highways and other infrastructure projects as well as placing regulations on
the banking industry and implementing public assistance programs such as Social Security
among many other programs. Here again, the effectiveness of these programs
at meeting the needs of black Americans was often a function of how the individual states
implemented them. Outside of that, the “Great Society” initiative
launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and 1965 was a programmatic effort to
attack and eliminate systemic poverty and racial injustice. As part of the agenda, the war on poverty
expanded many of the new Deal programs guaranteeing assistance to the poor that were initiated
during the new Deal in the 1930s. In 1964, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act,
which banned discrimination in public accommodations, schools, parks, and playgrounds, as well as
banning discrimination in employment. The landmark legislation also established
new powers for U.S. Attorney General and a new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
to oversee discrimination in government agencies which have historically been a major employer
of African-Americans. You may recall that one of the ways in which
the Civil Rights Act was implemented was in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. On March 14, 1991, the Los Angeles district
attorney charged officers Koon, Powell, Briseno and Wind with use of excessive force. Under the jurisdiction of the state of California. On April 29, 1992, the jury acquitted three
of the officers but could not agree on one of the charges against Powell in a ruling
that sparked the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. Subsequently, however, the four officers were
tried in a federal district court for violation of King’s civil rights. The trial ended on April 16, 1993, with two
of the four officers being found guilty and subsequently imprisoned. In 1965, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting
Rights Act. Because voting rights were codified by the
15th amendment of the Constitution, the power of the federal government to limit the states
ability to implement restrictions on voting rights was sanctioned in the US Constitution. Thus, the voting rights act was applicable
to each state in the union. The act contained a number of provisions intended
to protect the voting rights of US citizens (particularly African-Americans). The legislation placed a general restriction
on imposing any law that results in voter discrimination, specifically naming literacy
tests and other methods that have been historically used as a pretext to keep African-Americans
out of the voting booth. Additionally, however, the act contains special
provisions that applied to certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination. Most significantly, section 5 – the preclearance
requirement – prohibited mainly southern jurisdictions from implementing any change
to voting rules or qualifications without receiving preapproval from the US Atty. Gen. or the US District Court for DC. The purpose was to ensure that such changes
would not discriminate against protected minorities. As a result, many attempts to change voting
districts or establish new rules such as voting ID requirements were held at bay until the
US Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. That decision struck down section 5 of the
voting rights act. In the wake of the Supreme Court decision,
it took the state of Texas all of two hours to begin implementing voting ID requirements
and a plan to remap the voting districts that had been blocked only the previous year as
a result of the preclearance rule. Herein lies a perfect example of what happens
when you leave such measures to the states. The types of ID laws deemed acceptable by
the state of Texas were clearly discriminatory. Concealed carry permits, for example, were
considered acceptable forms of identification whereas government employee IDs and public
university IDs which are more often carried by people of color somehow did not seem to
make the list of acceptable ID. Since 2011, when Texas first began attempting
to implement restrictive voter ID laws, five times Texas courts have ruled the ID law discriminatory,
even after the preclearance requirement had been struck down,
So, strategically which would be the preferable route for implementing universal political
change – a nation centered approach or state centered approach? The answer depends on a number of factors
including the particular issue and political climate. Historically, the most expeditious approach
has been the nation centered approach. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the
Constitution for example set universal laws with regard to citizenship and voting rights
that were limited significantly to the degree to which the states could manipulate their
way around them. Additionally, the degree to which those states
could restrict the citizenship and voting rights of African-Americans has been limited
by federal actions such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Additionally, the Brown versus Board of Education
ruling rendered by the Supreme Court in 1954 made southern efforts to circumvent the 14th
amendment by way of “Jim Crow” segregation unconstitutional. Still, the states have shown extrordinary
resolve when it comes to finding ways to circumvent many of those rulings and federal actions. Also, nation centered power hasn’t been without
its liabilities. It was the U.S. Constitution as originally
ratified in 1788 that sanctioned fugitive slave laws, continuance of the international
slave trade, and a representation system that rigged the House of Representatives and the
electoral college heavily in favor of southern slaveowners due to the 3/5 clause. As a result of the 3/5 clause, which gave
extra representatives to southern states by counting 3/5 of the slave population for purposes
of representation, Southerners elected four out of the first five US presidents. It has been calculated that southern seats
in the House of Representatives have been boosted by an average of 25% until the 3/5
clause was effectively abolished as a result of the 14th amendment. National Supreme Court rulings that have limited
African-American efforts toward freedom and equality have included the infamous Dred Scott
decision of 1857. The case was based on Dred Scott’s claim
that he had lived in Wisconsin territory (a free territory) with his owner for over a
decade. Because the slaveowner brought Dred Scott
to Wisconsin territory, the Fugitive Slave Law did not apply. Since Dred Scott was not a fugitive (or runaway)
he asserted that had no obligation to return to the south upon the death of his slave owner. The case ensued when slaveowner’s daughter
pressed her claims of ownership. The Supreme Court rejected Dred Scott’s
claim. In the Dred Scott decision written by Chief
Justice Roger Taney, the court ruled that African Americans were not brought to the
United States to be citizens, could not enjoy the rights of citizens (including the right
to sue in court) not withstanding their free status, and had no rights that whites were
bound to respect. While the supreme court decision in Brown
versus Board of Education in 1954 declared segregation unconstitutional, that case overturned
a previous decision from 1896 that sanctioned segregation throughout the land. The Plessy versus Ferguson decision centered
around a case in which Homer Plessy sued for violation of his civil rights after having
purchased the first class ticket on the East Louisiana railroad. The case was intentionally set up to challenge
Louisiana’s separate car law that required segregation of passenger trains by race. Plessy, who was phenotypically white was subject
to segregation by the law, which prescribed separate accommodations for persons designated
as “octoroons” (being at least 1/8 black). The decision constitutionally sanctioned and
codified the Jim Crow regime based on the fallacious notion of “separate but equal.” On the other side of the coin, state centered
remedies as an approach for pursuing universal freedom have historically been rather cumbersome. The struggle for voting rights is probably
the best example. As we discussed previously, southern states
in particular have tended to seek diabolically creative ways to restrict voting rights for
African-Americans. With regard to voting rights for former felons,
however, we have 50 different states with pretty much 50 different sets of rules as
to how and under what circumstances persons with felony convictions may exercise their
right to vote. Those circumstances range from Vermont and
Maine on one side of the spectrum where persons who are currently serving time in prison on
felony convictions can actually vote from prison. On the other extreme, states like Florida,
Iowa, and Kentucky apply a lifetime ban for all persons convicted of felony offenses even
after their sentences have been served. Throughout the rest of the union there’s a
whole range of different ways in which states have determined the voting status of persons
with felony convictions. There’s California in which the right to vote
is pretty much automatically restored once the sentence has been completed to Mississippi
in which permanent disenfranchisement depends on the particular crime the person was convicted
of. Obviously, trying to get 50 different states
with 50 different rules to agree to any specific policy regarding felon disenfranchisement
would be cumbersome to say the least. That would likely be a situation in which
a constitutional amendment or perhaps an act of Congress to universalize those set of rules
would be more expedient. That approach, of course, depends on the type
of Congress you have and if you have a president willing to sign such an act into law. On the other hand, as we’ve seen with the
issue of marijuana decriminalization the state-by-state strategy has proven somewhat effective. Another issue in which the state-by-state
strategy may prove effective is in the abolition of the death penalty. The Constitution places a ban on it cruel
and unusual punishment. The strategy from many anti-death penalty
advocates centers on the “unusual” part of the cruel and unusual clause. In other words, there are currently 31 states
where the death penalty is currently implemented – although in four of them (Colorado, Pennsylvania,
Washington, and Oregon) there is a current moratorium as a result of a state gubernatorial
band. In 19 states the death penalty has been abolished. If you add the four states that are currently
under gubernatorial ban and it only takes three more states to reach a critical threshold. If the anti-death penalty movement can attain
abolition of the death penalty in 26 states out of 50, a legal case could be made that
since the majority of states do not uphold capital punishment, the death penalty would
then constitute “unusual punishment.” So, on the whole nation centered power has
led to greater universal freedom for African-Americans with some important exceptions. State centered power has tended to lead to
restrictions on African American freedoms but in certain situations and depending upon
the issue, state centered power can be used as a vehicle to drive change on a national
level. In what issues would you like to see political
change? Which approach would be the most practical
in achieving that change? I’d love to see your insights in the comments
below. As always, if you’d like to see more of
this content please hit that like button. Until next time, I’m Darius Spearman. Thank you for watching African Elements.

Maurice Vega

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