Some defenders of the Confederate flag in South Carolina and around the country say the flag is not a symbol of racism and violence -- but of states' rights. They say the Civil War was waged by the South to limit the authority of President Lincoln and the federal government over the states.

Others say -- more accurately -- that the South fought to preserve slavery on the theory that whites are superior to blacks. Whatever the causes of the civil war, the issues of states' rights and race are deeply related. And not just in the past, but today as well.

There are all kinds of reasons to favor the states over the central government that have nothing to do with race. Many argue that local elected officials know what their constituents need better than politicians in Washington and that letting policymakers in each state make different decisions allows for experimentation.

But in the past, these same arguments were deployed to defend explicitly racist policies. "Such arguments are tainted by their historical association with slavery and segregation," Philip Klein writes in The Washington Examiner.

It is not just a historical association, though. Today, the question of the appropriate limits of federal power today is still impossible to answer without addressing disparities in how the states treat African Americans.  Here, we examine that relationship in three policy areas -- health care, welfare and education.

Health care

Under the Affordable Care Act, people who are near the poverty line but not quite under it were supposed to be eligible for Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor. In 2012, however, the Supreme Court, however, ruled that the federal government couldn't force the states to provide insurance to this group.

Since that ruling, 22 states have refused to expand Medicaid, including just about all of the South. As a result, some 3.7 million adults do not receive health insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. About 1 million of them are black.

It is no surprise that the group that states denied coverage by declining to expand Medicaid is disproportionately black. Blacks are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to carry health insurance, and many of them also live in the South.

For some in that part of the country, opposition to Medicaid expansion had deep connections to Civil War and states' rights. "The Affordable Care Act had descended on Mississippi like so many prior federal edicts: as an invasion from the North that fractured along racial lines, stoking long-held grievances against the federal government," wrote Sarah Varney, a senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News, in Politico last year.

She cited comments by Roy Nicholson, a founder of the Mississippi Tea Party, about resisting Obamacare: "To resist by all means that are right in the eyes of God is not rebellion or insurrection, it is patriotic resistance to invasion."

Welfare

The debate about federal power and public benefits extends beyond Medicaid. In a provocative report on poverty last year, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) argued for combining 11 disparate federal assistance programs -- such as food stamps and housing vouchers -- into one. In a pilot program, the money would be turned over to participating states to decide what to do with it. In budgetary jargon, this kind of transfer of federal money to the states is called a block grant.

Critics raised two objections. First, when Congress takes the money being used to run a federal program and turns it over to the states, the money tends to disappear over time. Funding for 11 such programs converted to block grants since 2001 has declined by 23 percent, according to Richard Kogan, senior vice president president of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

African Americans disproportionately benefit from these programs. Twenty-six percent of those who receive federal food stamps are black, which is twice the black share of the population as a whole.

Ryan would no doubt object that it was not his goal to hurt the poor, or blacks in particular. Indeed, he argues that the design of existing welfare programs does exactly that, penalizing poor families for success by withholding benefits if they begin to make more money.

All the same, these statistics show the difficulty of talking about states' rights and federal power without talking about the many ways that contemporary society still puts African Americans at a disadvantage.

Education

For kids who grow up on food stamps or in public housing, public education might be the most important thing they get from their government. And the classrooms are another place where the debate about the limits of Washington's authority has been particularly heated lately.

While many policymakers now regard No Child Left Behind, the education law President Bush signed in 2002, as a failed experiment, many in the civil rights community believe that Bush got a few things right.

The law represented a major expansion of the federal government's power over schools. It made federal funding dependent on students' performance on standardized tests, and administrators' willingness to make changes if students were doing badly.

From the perspective of many parents and educators of color, the new rules represented a commitment by the federal government to enforce genuine standards in schools with few white students. They believe local officials have neglected these schools in the six decades since the Supreme Court integrated the schools in Brown v. Board.

And on Thursday -- coincidentally, the day after the violence in Charleston -- a coalition of civil rights organizations issued a statement opposing the legislation currently under discussion on Capitol Hill to repeal No Child Left Behind. The bill doesn't go far enough to protect federal authority over the schools, according to the statement.

The authors want the federal government to require school districts to report test results for all groups of students, so that local administrators can't hide the poor performance of minorities if their schools aren't doing a good job of educating them. They also want a provision requiring local administrators to take action when the test results show things aren't going well.

Research on the No Child Left Behind law and race has yielded inconclusive results. Data below from the federal National Assessment of Economic Progress show that black high school students do just as poorly on math tests, relative to their white classmates, as they did 25 years ago. On the whole, No Child Left Behind had little appreciable effect on achievement either way.


Sean Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford, tried to figure out what effect the law's standardized testing system had in individual states. In some, he and his colleagues concluded, the system helped students of color. Educators focused on helping students in racial and ethnic minorities, knowing the law would impose penalties on their schools if test scores did not improve among those groups.

In other places, the law seemed to hold those students back. Where minorities in the student body were too small for their test results to be meaningfully measured, the law imposed no penalties. Some teachers apparently ignored those students as a consequence, exacerbating the differences with their white peers.


Sean Reardon et al., 2013.

In any case, over the long term, federally imposed integration appears to have helped black students. The discrepancies in test scores that existed decades ago have narrowed, which helps explain why many leaders in the civil rights community support federally imposed standardized tests.

[Read more: What the Confederate flag really means to America today, according to a race historian]