By Charlie Mitchell
How many Mississippis are there, one or two?
Go to the tax office to pay for a tag and the clerk might be black or might be white. Either way, you owe what you owe.
Go in a classroom and the teacher might be white or might be black. The teacher might be a good teacher or might not be a good teacher. But race won’t be what makes the difference.
Go in a restaurant and white servers and black servers will be tending to white families, black families and multiracial families and groups. What matters is if the server is polite, orders are correct and the food is good.
That’s the day-to-day reality in Mississippi, the state with the closest-to-even (61 percent white, 37 percent black) racial array of citizens.
To look at us, it appears we’re people who choose to live in this state, not ignoring our different histories but not letting them dominate our daily lives. Race matters when it matters, doesn’t when it doesn’t. Different pigments, but the same basic outlook. Stuff that makes us happy is not determined by our race. Stuff that makes us sad is not determined by our race.
Then along comes something like Dr. Ronald Mason’s pitch for “Jacobs State University.”
It is firmly grounded in the proposition we’re two states, separate and unequal. There’s white Mississippi, which is oppressive, and black Mississippi, which is a victim of whites who have blacks by the throats and won’t let go.
In private huddles, the tenured president of Jackson State University presented his plan, in the form of 34 slides, to selected state lawmakers. When initially obtained by The Clarion-Ledger, Mason said the plan was a draft of ideas not intended for the public. Nonetheless, he has gone on to explain and defend it.
The entire presentation is us vs. them.
The title page calls it “A proposal to and for black people in Mississippi.” It identifies black Mississippians as the “poorest people in the poorest state” and facing a litany of conditions ranging from most uneducated to most likely to die violently. Then it lists only three causes: slavery, segregation and discrimination.
It goes on to depict white Mississippians as prosperous, to name the three historically black state universities and to say they have purposely been held down. The plan includes a slap at “wealthier black students,” characterizing them as race traitors for attending “white schools.”
Because “Mississippi has devoted extraordinary amounts of time and energy limiting the human potential of black people,” Mason then says the best and most cost-efficient way out is a three-campus model with Jackson State as a graduate campus and Alcorn and Mississippi Valley as undergraduate feeder campuses. The single entity would be named for H.P. Jacobs, former slave who founded a Baptist seminary.
The past couple of years haven’t been super for the president of Jackson State, who by education and experience has as solid a resume as any university president anywhere. Violence on and near campus has resulted in student deaths. Band students were reprimanded for severe hazing. And the budget has been under severe pressure, more severe than the state’s largest three universities because the larger schools have better foundation and alumni support.
While top posts at Alcorn and Valley have seen turnover at the top, Mason has been in the trenches fighting the good fight for JSU since 1999. After the Jacobs State plan became public late in January, a great hue and cry went up. Key legislators said, “No way,” period. Student and alumni groups met and demanded Mason’s head on a platter.
All the protests, however, were about keeping the state’s three historically black universities distinct from each other. Not much was said about the less obvious “two Mississippis” argument that forms the foundation for Jacobs State. Maybe it was something of a Hail Mary pass by Mason, this suggestion to toss everything out and start over.
A problem, however, is that his “one Mississippi” picture is clouded by some facts. More students are in the eight state-supported universities this year than ever before. More black students are attending college. More are graduating, going on to professional schools, rising economic ladders. The plan says blacks must act separately because the white majority is determined to crush black achievement. If that’s true, whites aren’t doing a very good job.
Claiming there’s “one Mississippi” sounds way too much like cheerleading. There are disparities. But “two Mississippis” sounds awfully defeating. If that’s the way Dr. Mason really feels, maybe we should get separate water fountains, too.
Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.