SID SALTER: State's racial politics distorted again by lazy reporting

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – What an incredibly convenient story New York Times reporter Campbell Robinson dropped into Mississippi to write about the current political anemia of the Democratic Party in the South with the 2011 governor’s race in this state as the backdrop.
After what I’m sure was an exhaustive examination, Robinson concluded, as the headline on his story trumpeted: “For politics in the South, race divide is defining.” The gist of the story, like so many before it, is that the Republican “Southern Strategy” worked and that whites in the South won’t vote for Democrats because of race.
In what I’m certain was a matter of sheer coincidence, The Times reporter went to my hometown of Philadelphia to follow Democratic nominee Johnny DuPree’s campaign. On the day in question, DuPree was speaking to the local Rotary Club.
That coincidence laid the groundwork for the reporter to mention that the Ku Klux Klan murdered civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in Neshoba County in 1964 and that Republican Ronald Reagan kicked off his successful 1980 campaign for president at the Neshoba County Fair.
Citation of those events is an opportunity to illustrate what the Times through various writers has argued since 1980 – that Reagan’s speech at Neshoba represented some type of philosophical handoff of the baton of racism from the old racist Democrats of the 1960s to the new racist Republicans in 1980 and beyond.
That argument fails on any number of levels. First and foremost is the size and scope of the Democratic Party’s political turf in Mississippi against a GOP that couldn’t elect a governor in Mississippi until 1991. Democrats control the Mississippi House, are within striking distance in the state Senate, and control the majority of municipal and county governments statewide. To his credit, the visiting reporter admitted that a 92 percent white majority in Alcorn County elected Eric Powell as their state senator in 2007, but found a source who said that wouldn’t survive the GOP’s political onslaught.
By contrast, Republicans dominate the state’s congressional delegation and statewide offices. No arguments there, but that fact begs the question of why and once again The Times lays the blame or credit – depending on one’s political allegiance – for that fact at the feet of racism.
So let me understand this: Mississippians will elect Democrats in local and county politics and in state legislative politics, but not at the highest levels. Racism in Mississippi apparently gets stronger when we got to the political level of agriculture commissioner than it does for mayor or sheriff or even state senator.
A more rational assessment might be that in local, county, even state legislative politics, social issues aren’t part of the political debate. In Mississippi, for good or ill, there remains a rather wide chasm between Democratic Party philosophies on issues like gun rights, abortion, and the priorities for which the nation taxes and spends. In local politics, it’s character and competence. Party matters less.
In choosing Philadelphia as the backdrop for the story alleging that race is the great divide between Democrats and Republicans and white and blacks, the Times reporter ignored one inconvenient truth – the fact that Philadelphia has an African-American Democrat mayor elected by a white majority that votes Republican in presidential elections.
So the white majority in Neshoba County were racist on rejecting a black Democrat president, but not racist on electing a black Democrat mayor? And they are meant to be the examples of why the Democratic Party can’t win statewide in Mississippi and in the South? The logic of that conclusion by the nation’s newspaper of record eludes me – but it sticks to a consistent script.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (662) 325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.