Throughout the 2015-2016 election campaign, there has been discussion of Republican efforts to “turn back the clock”—to dilute, and indeed reverse, a broad range of civil rights related to race, gender, sexual identification, etc. However, as the Trump era begins to take shape, we are starting to see that conservatives are not only turning the clock back in terms of general philosophy, but in regards to specific tactics as well. And they’re not just looking backwards by a few decades; they’re taking it all the way back to slavery.
Show Me Your Papers
Among the more troubling members of Trump’s deplorable transition team is Kris Kobach, currently Kansas’ secretary of state. Kobach’s anti-civil rights pedigree isextensive, and includes the controversial 2010 Arizona law which made it a state crime for an undocumented immigrant to be in Arizona without carrying their legal paperwork. It also allowed members of law enforcement to stop anyone and ask for their papers if they suspected the person might be undocumented.
The Arizona law is reminiscent of slavery era “Black Codes”, sets of laws which were designed to limit the rights of free Blacks (in contrast to “Slave Codes” discussed below, which dealt specifically with those still enslaved). Free Blacks faced the threat of being captured and re-enslaved at any time, and one tactic which facilitated such re-enslavement was the requirement that free Blacks have their “freedom papers” with them at all times—documents that could verify that they were indeed “free”. The Arizona law is also similar to apartheid era laws in South Africa, requiring Blacks to “show their papers” on demand.
Of course, the impact of the Arizona law extends beyond immigrants—documented or undocumented—and will impact U.S. born citizens as well. All a law enforcement officer needs is a belief that a person is undocumented, which can essentially amount to “you look Mexican”. With Donald Trump setting the standard with his attack on U.S. born Judge Curiel, whom he repeatedly referred to as Mexican, it’s clear that law enforcement will feel able to racially profile and use the law as pretext to harass and potentially arrest Latinos for a variety of offenses, many of which will have nothing to do with immigration status.
Criminalizing Support for Freedom
Similarly, in the state of Washington, a Republican state senator who supported Donald Trump is seeking to intensify the criminalization of protests by declaring certain forms of protest as “economic terrorism”. While many of the activities included in the proposed bill are already punishable as misdemeanors, the bill would classify these activities as felonies, significantly increasing the possible fines as well as jail time involved.
While the attack on protestors is insane in and of itself, another feature of the bill is equally draconian, if not more so. The bill seeks to punish those who fund, organize, and/or sponsor such protests, a provision which could have a chilling effect on those individuals who for whatever reasons cannot directly participate in such activities but who would support in other ways. While the bill’s supporters claim that such limits are aimed at billionaires who are allegedly sponsoring the protests (a complete lie), such a law could be used against a random supporter who donated materials for signs or who contributed $10 in support of the cause.
Such a policy, which seeks to criminalize not only participants but supporters, has its roots in slavery era “slave codes”. Some are aware of how slave codes denied rights to enslaved Africans, but many of us are not as familiar with the restrictions placed on Whites. For example, laws which forbade enslaved Africans from reading were often accompanied by language stating that it illegal for a White person to *teach* a slave to read. More importantly, fugitive slave laws not only made it illegal to support those who had escaped, but went as far as to require on demand that any individual actively assist in capturing a fugitive.
Imagine the modern-day implications of such a policy, perhaps as applied to requiring assistance with mass deportations. Or try extending Donald Trump’s comments during debate #2 regarding Muslims watching their neighbors and reporting (which launched a comical #muslimsreportstuff), and imagine that as a legal requirement.
Several months ago, all eyes were on North Carolina as the state legislature and Governor McCrory passed HB2, “the bathroom bill”, which allowed for discrimination against LGBT individuals. Although the civil rights issue involved with the bill rightfully received a lot of attention, an underlying issue was only discussed on the margins, and that was the fact that the state bill was actually nullifying a municipal law passed by the city of Charlotte. While the issue itself is obviously truly important, the tactic used may turn out to be the bigger story over the next few years.
A similar example can be found in Birmingham, Alabama, which in 2015, passed a city ordinance to increase the minimum wage. However; in February 2016, the state government passed a law which prohibits all local governments, including Birmingham, from enacting higher local minimum wage ordinances. Again, a state government nullified a city’s attempt to support its residents. In this case, the racist aspects of the state action are painfully clear; Black residents would have accounted for an estimated 70% of the beneficiaries of the increased minimum wage. In essence, a predominantly White state government was telling a predominantly Black city to “stay in its place.”
Such action is not new in Alabama, which is governed by a constitution that severely restricts the ability of city and county governments to pass legislation covering their own jurisdictions. It’s no coincidence that the Alabama constitution has been in effect since 1901, and that many of its provisions were specifically created to roll back Black progress made during Reconstruction and to control any future attempts at the local level. Thus, the state nullification of local law tactic that we are seeing has its roots in the slavery era—or at least the post-Reconstruction era. This tactic is guaranteed to become more prevalent as cities continue to try to pass progressive policies.
The point here is not that we must run and hide. Quite the contrary, the point is that we must be aware of these tactics and use *our* knowledge of history, combined with our modern strengths and resources, to implement counter-strategies. We can and will defeat these efforts to turn back the clock, but only if we are clear about the nature of our opponents. As David Walker said in 1830, “do not trifle, for they will not trifle with you.”