On August 3, 1980, Ronald Reagan delivered a watershed speech (pdf) as the presidential campaign entered its final three months. The most often-quoted passage of the speech is his siren call to states’ rights:
I believe in state’s rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.
As William Raspberry noted on the occasion of Reagan’s death in 2004, both the call for states’ rights and the location chosen for delivering the speech had powerful racial overtones:
Philadelphia, county seat of Mississippi’s Neshoba County, is famous for a couple of things. That is where three civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — were murdered in 1964. And that is where, in 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan chose to launch his election campaign, with a ringing endorsement of “states’ rights.”
It was bitter symbolism for black Americans (though surely not just for black Americans). Countless observers have noted that Reagan took the Republican Party from virtual irrelevance to the ascendancy it now enjoys. The essence of that transformation, we shouldn’t forget, is the party’s successful wooing of the race-exploiting Southern Democrats formerly known as Dixiecrats. And Reagan’s Philadelphia appearance was an important bouquet in that courtship.
Raspberry rightfully notes the Southern strategy preceded Reagan, originating during the Goldwater and Nixon campaigns and he even noted that when considering Reagan, Raspberry “used to find myself almost believing he wasn’t truly responsible for the bad outcomes of his policies.” But the bottom line is that the movement Reagan catalyzed had horrific racial consequences. Even worse, the Reagan movement also initiated changes that in the intervening 36 years have resulted in the virtual destruction of the middle class and the transfer of most of America’s wealth into the hands of a very select few.
Even the pivotal Philadelphia, Mississippi speech sowed the the seeds for this destruction, as well. The very next paragraph in the transcript after the snippet quoted above shows how the process started:
I’m going to try also to change federal regulations in the tax structure that has made this once powerful industrial giant in this land and in the world now with a lower rate of productivity than any of the other industrial nations, with a lower rate of savings and investment on the part of our people and put us back where we belong.
Going back to look at the historical record on several fronts shows how these basic tenets of Reaganism from his Philadelphia speech resulted in massive institutional racism and the destruction of the middle class.
The powerful Republican dog-whistle of states’ rights was implemented in the Reagan era on many fronts, but is illustrated most succinctly when we look at data on imprisonment of Americans.
The figure below, from the Prison Policy Initiative, has been making the rounds recently as the Sanders and Clinton camps have argued over the effects of the 1994 crime bill passed during Bill Clinton’s first term: Read more