Disparate Democracy: Preemption Laws Disempower Communities of Color

In a previous post, we at United for a Fair Economy took a look at state preemption laws: laws passed by state governments which override the policies of city governments, especially progressive policies like raises in the minimum wage. These policies are in direct conflict with the ideals of a democracy, but their negative effects are concentrated among one specific group: people of color.


Because it is large cities with politically active governments that are most restricted by these laws, state preemption laws are effectively a way for state governments to take decision-making power away from their largest cities in favor of giving people in suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas a more major say about what happens within cities. This redistribution of power is not just geographic, but racial as well. In 2010, Latinx people made up 16.3% of the population and Black people made up 12.6%. However, in the same year, Latinxs made up 26% of the population of major urban centers, and Blacks made up 22%. So, by shifting political power from city governments to state governments, preemption laws shift power away from areas where black and Latinx citizens are concentrated to the state level, where white citizens are hold a larger degree of power.

Take, for example, Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis is a town that is 62.8% Black with a city council that is 53.8% Black; the state of Tennessee, however, is 81.2% white, with a state legislature that is 85% white. Memphis has the second highest poverty rate and the highest child poverty rate of any large city in America. This poverty is extremely racialized: black families are more than 2.3 times more likely than white families to live in poverty. Black workers in the lowest wage job sectors earn only 70 cents for each dollar that white workers in the same sectors earn. In order to combat this economic hardship, Memphis passed a city ordinance in 2006 raising the minimum wage for city contractors to a “living wage” of $10.27 for those with health insurance and $12.32 for those without it. This law, which would have boosted the incomes of poor citizens across the city, was then preempted in 2013 by the Tennessee state legislature, reversing the progress made. In summary, a majority black city was prevented from democratically taking action against poverty and racial inequality by a white state legislature, elected by white citizens.

Memphis is no outlier, either. In fact, similar stories have played out as well in Durham, North Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; St. Louis, Missouri; and more. Nikki Fortunato Bas, Executive Director of the progressive organization Partnership for Working Families, points out that “predominantly white legislatures overturning municipal laws passed by majority black cities” seems to be one of the most common uses of preemption laws, a trend which she attributes to “a larger Jim Crow legacy of blocking economic policies that primarily benefit communities of color.”

The racist consequences of state preemption laws become even more evident when looking at exactly what types of laws are most commonly preempted. 24 states block various forms of minimum wage increases, which would benefit the people of color who are disproportionately likely to earn minimum wage. 17 states block cities from requiring employers to provide paid leave, which Latinx employees have far less access to than members of all other races. Another 17 states block cities from creating public broadband systems; black and Latinx Americans have lower rates of home broadband service than white Americans. A handful of states block cities from passing LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws, even as black and Latinx Americans identify as LGBT at higher rates than white Americans. Whether it is intentional or not, state preemption laws repeatedly serve to prevent local coalitions of people of color from passing laws aimed at eliminating racial inequality. As such, the fight for racial justice and equality in our own cities, towns, and neighborhoods calls for us to repeal these laws.

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