Look a little closer and you’ll find that state legislatures are some of the most unapologetic cesspools of racism in America.
Which is one reason some of us cringe at that familiar concept called “states’ rights.” There’s a long history attached to that phrase, and lately, the worst interpretations of the concept have been on the rise the farther out West you go, the deeper South you travel and the more you stumble around in the Midwest.
We occasionally pout over federal members of Congress who pull out ignorant screeds laced with subtle racist coding. But check out your state legislature and it all makes sense: Many state assemblies—loaded with part-time elected sociopaths looking for a soapbox—are virtual breeding grounds for oddball racist claims made in public view.
This time of year, it reaches a gong-crashing crescendo when most of the 50 state legislatures (pdf) are in session. There’s a sudden nationwide flood of racially charged invectives from, mostly, state Republican lawmakers. Here’s Mississippi state Rep. Gene Alday (R-Coahoma) on his hometown, “where all the blacks are getting food stamps” and getting “treated for gunshots.”
And while Nevada’s Assembly was pimping yet another voter-ID law, state Assemblywoman Michele Fiore (R-Clark) proclaimed that the bill couldn’t possibly be unfair to people of color because “we’re in 2015 and we have a black president, in case anyone didn’t notice.”
Then there was Washington state Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Yakima) doubling down on “poor, colored people [as] most likely to commit crimes”—and raising the word “Negro” from the dead while explaining it on local TV.
But state lawmakers’ words frequently match their legislative actions. If you’re not paying attention to your state capital (since, let’s keep it real, most of us don’t), not only are you unaware that nearly two-thirds of all state legislatures are dominated by mostly white, and sometimes openly bigoted, GOP legislators, but you’ve also missed a steady stream of racially shady bills introduced or passed in those same states. It’s one of the more commonplace trends in American politics, constantly fanned by racial animus as one party gears up for another presidential election full of racial and religious dog whistles that excite the conservative base.
Looking beyond the words, we dug deeper into the sticks and stones to find some of the most racially duplicitous, mean-spirited and stereotype-driven legislation coming to a state regulation near you:
Welfare benefits: While a clean majority of folks receiving government aid are white, that’s not going to stop most Americans from constantly associating welfare benefits with black people. Still, many low-income whites benefiting from welfare continue voting Republican as a sort of destigmatizing, racial upper hand. Hence, heavily red states like Kansas and Missouri are toying around with the unproven notion that “poor” people are spending their barely livable welfare benefits on luxury items such as steaks, tattoos and cruise-ship vacations. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, just signed a draconian welfare-spending-restriction bill into law with nearly two dozen other states on the same track—and neighboring Missouri’s Legislature passed a 15-month cut on benefits (as if Ferguson didn’t show that living in the Show Me State is hard enough).
“There is a connection between the restrictiveness of welfare policies and the share of a state’s population that is African American,” the Urban Institute’s Heather Hahn explained to The Root, citing that while the overall majority of those on welfare are white, a disproportionate share of blacks on government assistance creates the misperceptions that trigger such bills. In Kansas, blacks account for 8 percent of the population; in Missouri, they’re 13 percent—but black poverty rates in both states top almost 35 percent.
Medicaid benefits: Need Medicaid? You probably don’t want to go to Missouri, where Gov. Jay Nixon, the Democrat desperate for political survival in the post-Ferguson landscape, wants to play nice with Republicans by endorsing their Medicaid-for-work proposal. Missouri also has a black nonelderly uninsured rate of 12 percent and is one of 19 states that have not yet embraced Medicaid expansion because of the nonstop political wrangling over the Affordable Care Act.
Drug testing: What do you get when you pick four red-to-purple states and the four Republican governors who run them? Sights on the White House in 2016 or playing a kingmaker role in who gets picked in the GOP primary. But in doing so, first you’ll have to sharpen your conservative bona fides. That’s what’s happening in places like Florida (Gov. Rick Scott), Indiana (Gov. Mike Pence), Michigan (Gov. Rick Snyder) and Wisconsin (Gov. Scott Walker), where drug-testing welfare recipients is the hot, new political thing in places where you’ve got large black populations over 10 percent and black poverty rates soaring from 25 to 40 percent. Walker is already closing in on a presidential announcement, and others like Pence and Snyder could be eyeing legacy Cabinet slots.
Minimum wages: In Washington, politicians are battling over whether to keep the minimum wage where it is or increase it. In major cities, fast-food workers are going on strike to raise it. But in states like Nevada, state Republican lawmakers want to just get it over with and repeal it—even after state voters approved a standard minimum wage. Incidentally, Nevada’s black and Latino poverty rates are at or above 30 percent. In Indiana, the state repealed its long-standing common-construction-wage law, to the chagrin of labor unions.
Adoption bill: If you’re black and live in Florida, you can adopt children—but you wouldn’t be able to adopt, say, a white kid if the adoption agency didn’t want you to on religious or moral grounds, if the Florida House of Representatives gets its way.
SNAP photo ID: It’s already a fast-growing reality that if you don’t have an ID, well, you can’t vote. But now there’s a movement—led by Republican legislators—to make sure that if you don’t have an ID, you can’t eat, either. States like Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are already pushing ahead with laws that require ID to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program EBT cards at the grocery register—and many others are signing on. Yet a recent Urban Institute study shows that it’s a costly proposition with little return on investment, if any.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.