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Opinion | How Are We Still Debating Interracial Marriage in 2022?

Before the emergence of the postwar civil right movement and its legal and political arm, the scope of your rights varied from state to state. This was most acute for Black Americans, who became second-class citizens upon entering the states of the former Confederacy, but it was true across a range of issues for a large number of Americans. The extent of your voting rights, of your privacy rights, of whether you could marry or obtain an abortion, of whether you were counted equally for the purposes of representation, varied depending on where you lived in the country.

To the degree that this was “freedom,” it was the freedom to dominate, exercised by people at or near the top of our various overlapping hierarchies. And in fact, the ability to circumscribe rights for particular groups of Americans was itself constitutive of that hierarchical power. The decentralization of rights gave local bullies the space to thrive.

The rights revolution weakened and unraveled this state of affairs. The effect of the Voting Rights Act, for example, was twofold. It democratized political power in the South and it undermined the hierarchical social relations of Jim Crow. The introduction of something like political equality — established and secured by the federal government — helped lay a foundation for greater social equality and a more egalitarian society.

With that in mind, one way to understand the agenda of much of the modern Republican Party — from its crusade against Roe v. Wade and its attacks on the Voting Rights Act, to the frantic efforts of some Republican-controlled states to stigmatize sexual minorities — is that it is an attempt to make rights contingent again.

If successful, Republicans would effectively handcuff the federal government’s ability, either through legislation or through the courts, to establish and maintain that universal baseline for civil and political rights. And it would mean a return to the world as it was when the standard-bearers for hierarchy — whether of race or of gender or of class — had much freer rein to dominate as they saw fit.

As it stands, as Ron Brownstein wrote in The Atlantic last year, there is already a “great divergence” between “the liberties of Americans in blue states and those in red states.” And as Republican-led states ban abortion, ban books, restrict the teaching of America’s racial history in schools and trample on the rights of transgender people, this will only get worse.

Senator Braun’s mistake was not that he misunderstood the question; it’s that he understood it all too well. The world he and his colleagues are working toward is one in which the national government defers the question of civil and political rights to the states. And it is in the states, free from federal oversight, where people like Braun can exercise real control over what you might do, how you might live and who you might love. It’s freedom for some and obedience for the rest.

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