Opinion: For Trump, States’ Rights are OK for Racism and Sexism, but not Saving the Planet

Last Thursday the Trump administration announced its intention to revoke California’s right to set its own auto emissions standards.

The state’s special authority to set its own standards, stricter than federal regulations, dates back to the 1960s when California was battling particularly severe air pollution. Since then, however, California has been influential in encouraging other states to follow suit in acting more urgently to protect our environment. Twelve states have adopted California’s standards, effectively establishing a near nation-wide standard.

For the Trump administration, I guess, the authority of states’ rights just extended too far.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, in announcing the administration’s plans to revoke California’s special authority, asserted, “No state has the authority to opt out of the nation’s rules and no state has the right to impose its policies on everybody else in our whole country.”

She contended also that the state’s stricter standards “harms consumers and damages the American economy.”

Never mind that, even according to Forbes magazine, Chao is dead wrong in her assessment of the effects of these standards on consumers and the economy. Higher fuel costs, Forbes reports, will punish the consumer and thus the economy overall; and, of course, the increased air pollution and overall damage to the environment come with their own substantial costs. Additionally, automakers themselves have opposed these freezes in emissions standards because they threaten to make American manufacturers less competitive globally.

Indeed, according to Forbes, the revocation does not support American business overall but is consistent with Trump’s deregulatory tendency and his support for the oil industry, in this case at the expense of the overall economic and environmental health of the nation.

Chao’s erroneous and damaging assessments aside, what is also stunning about her announcement is her rejection of states’ rights in favor of the federal government’s power to exert its authority nationally.

Support for states’ rights has long been the rallying cry, the political bedrock, of right-win conservative politics, enabling them to challenge federal civil rights legislation and maintain racist practices, such as segregation, regardless of what the federal government said. For a recent example of how states’ rights doctrine, more popularly referred to as federalism, works, we can look to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder case. Chief Justice John Roberts penned the decision which rolled back provisions in the Voting Rights Act, eliminating the authority of the Federal Government to have oversight over state election procedures, enabling many states to proceed thereafter with legislation, such as strict voter-ID laws, aimed at suppressing the Black vote.

And let’s not forget the way Lee Atwater’s Southern Strategy deployed states’ rights as a code word for racial discrimination.

Here’s how Atwater characterized the strategy in a 1981 interview, laying bare its racist underpinnings:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “[N-word], [n-word], [n-word].” By 1968 you can’t say “[n-word]” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.

And it’s just not racism that states’ rights doctrine enables. In 2019 alone, nine states have passed legislation severely curtailing a woman’s ability to have an abortion. The laws typically outlaw abortion after a particular period in the pregnancy, with some states forbidding abortion after six weeks and some after eight. Alabama passed the most extreme version of the law, allowing abortion only if the mother’s health is in serious jeopardy.

None of these laws, however, has been officially implemented, as they are held up in the courts because they contradict the federal law of the land, specifically the reproductive rights granted in the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

I haven’t heard a peep from the Trump administration about these states’ efforts to roll back the federal protections for women’s reproductive rights.

Nor have we ever heard the Trump administration express any dismay over state voter suppression efforts or Confederate flags waving proudly across Southern landscapes.

Suddenly, however, when it comes to auto emission standards, which auto makers and many states favor, the Trump administration decides, quite selectively, that states’ rights have no standing. How dare a state, which has long had a dispensation to do so on behalf of its people’s and the environment’s health, enforce stricter regulations beyond what the federal government authorizes, even if those regulations are economically and environmentally effective.

It seems to be ok with the Trump administration when states want to enforce racist and sexist policies.

But when it comes to saving the planet, creating a healthy economy, and aiding the consumer, they’d rather we leave those decisions to big oil, I mean, the big federal government.

Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman's Press Association.

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