The current conflict regarding FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is essentially about whether the federal government should have primary responsibility for addressing disasters, or whether the states, localities, and private organizations should handle these issues. If any disaster demonstrates why FEMA needs to continue to exist in its present form as a federal agency, Hurricane Sandy is it. This disaster hit a dozen states. All of them border at least one other state that was hit; they all have common needs in responding to the effects of the rain and wind. People in these states have all been without electricity, gasoline, essential food products and water. The number of families that are homeless along the New Jersey coast, on Staten Island, and on Long Island is well into the thousands.
Help has come from all over the country. The military, which is under the control of the federal government as opposed to the states, has delivered everything from heavy equipment to gasoline and water from a other areas. Huge C-17 and C-130 Hercules transport planes have flown in supplies from as far away as California. There is no way that each of the states that were hit by the hurricane could have fended for themselves, although Governor Romney has suggested that they should.
To better understand the recent states’-rights movement, we need to look back more than 40 years. In the mid and late 1960s, under the strong influence of President Lyndon Johnson, Congress passed civil rights bills that provide protection for minorities in issues such as voting rights, public accommodations, and fair housing. Southern Democrats (and there were a lot of them in the mid-1960s) and some Republicans opposed the civil rights movement. They viewed these laws were an encroachment of states’ rights. In reality, the states’ rights argument was just a cover to continue to discriminate against African-Americans and other minorities. In the 1968 elections, Republican Richard Nixon appealed to southern states to leave the Democratic Party and join him in the Republicans’ effort to support states’ rights. This point of view was further exploited by third party candidate George Wallace from Alabama.
By 1972, the South had basically flipped from Democrat to Republican. It has been that way ever since. What’s important to keep in mind is that the genesis of the southern migration from Democrat to Republican was the issue of states’ rights, a euphemism for racism. Over the past 40 years, the racism has continued to be an underlying motivation of the states’ rights movement. That’s why so many efforts towards voter suppression, primarily in northern states, have been directed towards making it more difficult for African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities to vote. Anything that can strengthen the states’ rights movement is favored by the mainstream of the Republican Party. These include the dismantling of FEMA, the voucherization of Medicare, the reduction of Medicaid funding, and a host of other programs. Presumably, the Republicans feel that they can advance their agendas more effectively at the state level. They’re probably right about that.
As Jared Bernstein wrote in a special report to the CNN website,
Neither we as individuals nor our cities or states can do it all ourselves. Imagine, as Mitt Romney has advocated, that FEMA were eliminated, privatized, or handed off to states in a block grant. Or consider the House Republican budget — authored by Rep. Paul Ryan and endorsed by Romney during the primaries — a proposal that would cut 22% from the part of the budget that supports this type of aid to the states, amounting to a loss of $28 billion in 2014, including a $2 billion cut in New York state alone.
Further imagine — and if you’ve been following the hundreds of thousands of state layoffs of key personnel in recent months, this shouldn’t be a stretch — that a disaster like Sandy occurred at a time when state budgets are already under great strain (as are many families’ budgets).
So, as you weigh the presumed advantages of farming out the responsibilities and resources of FEMA to the states, consider the recent origin of states’ rights. It has to do with racial discrimination. In reality, the movement goes back to the beginning of the settlement of America by Caucasians and the slaves from Africa that were forced into what became the Confederacy. The U.S. Constitution endorsed discrimination through the “three-fifths” clause, and eventually the Civil War was fought over the issue. What lies behind the 21st Century Republican movement of states’ rights is what is sometimes called “America’s original sin.” From civil rights to FEMA, it’s important to strengthen the federal government, which is the real protector of our human rights and the general welfare of the country.