Mississippi could be on its way to a new era of full-fledged segregation. This time it may be fueled only by political perceptions, not enforced by laws, water hoses and police dogs.
There are many factors contributing to the trend of Republicans as the white party and Democrats as the black party, but election strategy may be one of them. If so, it’s pretty shameful. Worse, it’s a loser all-around.
This month before the Legislature started brawling over new lines for state House and Senate districts, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who is in the catbird’s seat to become the state’s next governor, chose to fire a meaningless broadside against the U.S. Justice Department’s continuing oversight of all election-related matters in Mississippi.
The federal agency has this power under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act, signed by Lyndon Baines Johnson with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. looking on, was the anvil upon which Jim Crow’s back was broken. Under its terms, the Legislature as well as local governments, could no longer draw district lines to splinter minority residential areas so that all districts would be majority white.
Bryant’s broadside was meaningless in that the law has been renewed and renewed again with the support of Mississippi’s delegation to Congress. In his day, even Sen. John C. Stennis came to support the Voting Rights Act. Any hint that it has served its purpose and is no longer needed runs up against a mountain of skepticism among minorities.
This is shown, clearly, in numbers gathered by Pam Shaw and Brad Chism, well-known advocates and monitors of Mississippi’s political pulse.
For several weeks, Shaw and Chism have been polling black citizens of Mississippi. Their view of Justice Department oversight differs from the lieutenant governor’s, to say the least. Sixty-three percent said the monitoring is still needed. Twenty-five percent felt there are enough African-Americans in the Legislature to guard against erosion of minority voting districts and 12 percent were unsure.
Phil Bryant is no race-baiter, but he is a Republican. As such, he knows that black Mississippians do not identify with his political party. Witness that four years ago, black Mississippians gave their votes to John Arthur Eaves Jr., who was more conservative than Haley Barbour – but was a Democrat. In other words, Bryant didn’t risk much by griping about the Justice Department.
It’s plausible that his comments were merely a statement of his sincere beliefs and he gave no thought to the implications for his candidacy. But it’s also plausible that he was trying to tap into the hyper-conservatism so evident leading to the national midterm elections last November and still running strong today. “We don’t need any federal bureaucrats telling us how to run Mississippi” was the most prominent and most effective rallying cry in Jim Crow’s day. And again today, though not in racial matters, the smart money is on the candidate who is most convincingly against big government or intrusive government.
Here’s the interesting part. Shaw and Chism didn’t just conduct a quick and easy poll to prove Bryant is out of touch with minority voters. They asked black Mississippians other questions.
One was whether respondents believe Mississippi’s best days are head. Fifty-six percent said yes, 22 percent were unsure and 22 percent said they believe the state’s best days are in its history books. The numbers tracked the same in January and February.
Answering a pocketbook question, 57 percent of African-Americans said they expect their own personal financial situations to be better a year from now. Only 22 percent expected to be in worse financial shape.
Shaw and Chism didn’t survey any white Mississippians, but suppose they did. Suppose they asked those same three questions to white citizens only.
Odds are the results on the Voting Rights Act would be inverted. Odds are that most white Mississippians think that the passing of 46 years and having more minorities in elective office than any other state shows sufficient distance from a segregationist past.
But what about the other two?
Odds are that white citizens and black citizens are in fairly close alignment when it comes to their levels of optimism about the state’s future and their own financial situations.
If so, that should tell us something.
Going whole hog into a new era of segregation by politics will be folly. Mississippians, black and white, have, for the most part, the same needs and interests.
If we keep moving more and more distinctly into color-coded political camps, we’ll be worse off for it. Politicians didn’t invent “divide and conquer,” but they sure know how to use it.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.