The NAACP recently passed a resolution backing a proposed federal law that would prohibit enforcement of federal laws banning marijuana in states that have imposed lesser penalties or have legalized marijuana entirely. The resolution cites the “misguided and misplaced policies” of the War on Drugs, which have resulted in “the disproportionate over-confinement of racial and ethnic minorities.”
In one sense, this is not a surprising move. The NAACP previously called for an end to the War on Drugs in 2011, for similar reasons. But it is somewhat unusual for the nation’s most prominent African-American civil rights organization to back state autonomy on an important policy issue. For many decades, most political liberals and most minorities associated “states’ rights” with the defense of racism and segregation.
The NAACP’s endorsement of state autonomy on this issue certainly does not mean that they necessarily support greater political decentralization generally. But it is of a piece with other recent moves towards a more positive view of federalism on the left, including Yale Law Professor Heather Gerken’s work on the subject. Gerken argues that, despite its historic association with racism, conditions have changed in ways that make federalism more beneficial to minorities today than it might have been in the past. In some of my own work (e.g. here and here), I have argued that federalism was not uniformly harmful to minorities in earlier periods in American history either. During some crucial time-frames, minorities might well have been worse off under a unitary national policy on racial issues than they were with federalism.
None of this proves that federalism is always good for minorities, either today or in the past. There clearly are times when federal government intervention is the best way to protect minorities from state or local oppression. But it does suggest that the conventional wisdom, which holds that minority interests are almost always best served by centralization of political power, is in need of serious revision.