Black Politics — State vs. Nation Centered Power,, Part 1: Federalism & Black Politics
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Black Politics — State vs. Nation Centered Power,, Part 1: Federalism & Black Politics


Hello and welcome to African Elements and
another installment in a series on Black politics. I’m Darius Spearman. In this episode – nation versus state centered
power. How has the system of federalism – or the
sharing of power between national and state governments – impacted African Americans
in the political pursuit of universal freedom? What are the implications in terms of political
strategy? We look at the circumstances under which nation
centered power and state centered power have either favored or disadvantaged black political
struggles. All that coming up right now. NATION VS. STATE CENTERED POWER
Federalism is the sharing of the powers of government between the national (or federal
government) and the governments of the states. There is an ongoing debate, however, as to
where the balance of power between federal and state governments lies. That debate took center stage during the United
States Constitutional convention which convened from May 25 to September 17, 1787. Slavery was largely at the heart of that debate. During the Constitutional convention, for
example, the “Virginia plan” proposed that the people as a whole elect the members of
the House of Representatives. The House would in turn elect the Senate,
the president, and the judiciary. A major sticking point, however, was that
the Congress would then have unlimited powers – including the power to veto acts of state
legislatures. Obviously the southern slaveholding states
feared that the Virginia plan, which gave the unitary government the power to negate
all laws passed by the states would interfere with the institution of slavery. The southern slaveholding states were ready
to bolt if their interests were in anyway threatened by the United States Constitution. The answer was to not directly mention slavery
at all. Even so, there were some unavoidable issues
that required that the framers spell out how the institution of slavery was going to be
dealt with. State representation in the House of Representatives,
for example, was to be determined by each state’s population – the larger a state’s
population, the larger the number of representatives for that state in the House of Representatives. But what about slaves? Where they to be counted in the state’s
population for the purpose of representation? For the northern states, who clearly wanted
to stack the number of representatives is their favor (and thus further their interests
in the House of Representatives), the answer was clearly, no. For or Southerners – who wanted to use the
slave population to boost their representation in the House – the answer was clearly yes. Thus, the infamous three-fifths compromise
was enacted, which stated that representation was to include three fifths of the slave population. Another issue that further defined the power
of the federal government as it relates to slaveholding interests arose over the status
of fugitive slaves. What if a slave escaped to a non-slaveholding
state? What would be the status of that slave? Could a state impose it’s power over another
state to protect its monetary interests in human chattel or would the federal government
have to intervene on behalf of that state? Could the federal government intervene? Those questions were addressed in a fugitive
slave clause that was inserted into the constitution. The clause gave slaveholding states the power
to cross state lines and retrieve runaway slaves that had made their way into free territories. What about the slave trade? What authority would the Congress have in
controling the importation of slaves from the international slave trade? A constitutional clause banned any interference
on the international slave trade over a 20 year period until the year 1808
So, after much wrangling and debate, the 13 former colonies that formed the first 13 states
in the union determined to balance the powers of the national government and the states. The federal government of the United States
had certain powers specified within the Constitution such the right to coin money, regulate commerce,
or to declare war. By the 10th amendment, however, those rights
that were not specifically delegated to the federal government were reserved for the states. For African Americans federalism has yielded
mixed results. In theory, the advantage of the federal system
is that it allows the states to serve as “laboratories” for public policy innovation and experimentation. A recent example of state initiatives that
have forged ahead of federal policy would be the issue of marijuana legalization. In 1996, California became the first state
in the nation to legalize marijuana for medical use when voters passed proposition 215. Several states followed suit in the ensuing
years. In 2012 the states of Colorado and Washington
legalized recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 years of age or older. Over the next five years, Alaska, Oregon,
California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts have also legalized the recreational use of
marijuana through state ballot initiatives. All told, 28 states, as well as the District
of Columbia have enacted some form of marijuana legalization. State legalization has occurred even while
marijuana remains classified as a schedule 1 narcotic as defined under federal law by
the Controlled Substances Act. Given the devastating consequences the war
on drugs has had on African Americans since the 1980s, efforts toward legalization of
marijuana could help to mitigate the enormous toll that mass incarceration has wrought on
black Americans. On the other hand, leaving the process of
policymaking in the hands of state lawmakers has more often yielded undesirable results
for African Americans. The most obvious example would be the issue
of slavery. Until the Civil War, slavery and the rights
of African-Americans was mostly a matter decided strictly by each individual state. Even in non-slaveholding states “free”
Blacks were often relegated to slavelike status. In California, for example, the delegates
of the 1849 state constitutional convention decided unanimously to exclude slavery from
within California’s borders. Still, African Americans were not allowed
to offer testimony in California courts until the year 1863. Blacks gained voting rights in California
not through state action, but only after the 15th amendment was added to the Constitution
in 1870. Additionally, Blacks faced legal segregation
in California schools until the year 1890. Oddly, even as the California constitution
made California a non-slaveholding state, in 1852 California passed its own fugitive
slave law, which went even further than the national fugitive slave act of 1850. In spite of California’s ban on slavery, the
1852 Fugitive Slave Law essentially gave license to slaveowners to bring slaves into the state. While the national fugitive slave act granted
enormous powers to slaveholders to retrieve slaves who had escaped to non-slaveholding
territories and required citizens of non-slaveholding territories to cooperate in their return,
California’s fugitive slave law upped the ante even more. The California law didn’t even require that
the so-called fugitives be runaways. In other words, in California – which was
ostensibly a non-slaveholding state – slaves had no claim to freedom even if they were
brought to the “free” state by their slave owner. Even after slavery was abolished by the 13th
amendment of the Constitution in 1865 the states of the former Confederacy systematically
passed laws that insured the continued exploitation of black labor. Such laws included the convict lease system
which allowed prisoners (almost exclusively black prisoners) to be leased out to private
interests. Vagrancy laws acted as a dragnet to round
up newly “freed” men and women who could not prove that they were employed. It was against the law throughout much of
the South for a black person to leave the employment of one landowner to work for another
landowner without the permission of the first landowner. Under child apprenticeship laws, black children
from age 2 to 21 could be removed from black homes and placed as free laborers in white
households for reasons as arbitrary as it being “in the best interest of the child.” Although the 14th amendment ostensibly granted
citizenship to all persons born in the United States,(including former slaves) the Jim Crow
regime quickly spread throughout the southern states relegating Blacks to second-class citizenship
at best. A system of rigid segregation was installed
in which black and white facilities were separate and unequal. Throughout much of southern society the absurd
system of “Jim Crow” segregation separated Blacks from whites in every area of society
from the cradle to the grave – that is Blacks and whites were born in separate hospitals
and buried in separate segregated cemeteries. The absurdity of the system was manifest in
everything from segregated transportation systems, waiting rooms, drinking fountains,
and swimming pools that designated specific days for whites and Blacks whereas on Sunday
the pool was completely drained so that the white children who swam in the pool on Monday
would not have to suffer the indignity of swimming in water that had touched black bodies. Other examples include the issue of welfare
reform. During the Great Depression of the 1930s,
President Roosevelt initiated federal policies that guaranteed income for the poor, elderly,
and disabled with the Social Security act of 1935. Those programs were expanded under the Johnson
administration in the 1960s, but the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act signed
by President Bill Clinton in 1996 established block grants that would allow federal monies
or welfare programs to be administered and dispersed by the states. The result was a far more draconian welfare
system that allowed the states to establish extraordinarily punitive criteria for distributing
assistance to the poor. One might recall the efforts from several
states to ban steak and lobster from the food stamp program. In even more absurd example, the state of
Florida led efforts to force mandatory drug testing of all welfare recipients. A segment of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
in 2012 covered that topic in absolutely brilliant, poignant and hysterical fashion. It’s about a six-minute clip. I’d highly recommend checking it out at
the link below.

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