By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – In 1965, all political power at all levels in Mississippi belonged to white people. White officials had no motivation to consider the needs or interests of black Mississippians. Black Mississippians who tried to talk to white officials could be pretty sure their thoughts and opinions would be disregarded.
It wasn’t good.
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, with Section 4 and specifically applicable to Mississippi and eight other “Old Confederacy” states. The idea was to use federal muscle end the exclusion of minorities from the political process. President Lyndon Johnson affixed his signature with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. standing by his side.
What do we have in Mississippi?
Almost all political districts at all levels in Mississippi belong to either white people or they belong to black people. White officials still don’t have any motivation to consider the needs or interests of black Mississippians. But black officials don’t have any motivation to consider the needs or interests of white people, either. All either race has to do is keep its people happy.
The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t mention this when deciding to strike down Section 4 last week.
The 5-4 decision merely said its basis – white people keeping black people from participating – was no longer valid, so Congress either needed to come up with another basis for Section 4 or forget about it.
The numbers are resounding. Forty-eight years ago, 70 percent of white Mississippians were registered, while only 6.7 percent of black Mississippians could vote. By 2004, the percentage of black Mississippians enrolled had risen to 76.1, a proportion actually 3.8 percentage points greater than whites.
Clearly, the majority said, poll books are open, so the rationale for continued insistence that all voting matters be prescreened by federal attorneys has gone away.
The court also didn’t address the methods by which “equality” was reached under Section 5 of the act, but Section 5 is what led to today’s fractured political landscape.
Let’s pause to talk jelly beans. Say you have some green ones and some orange ones. What happens when you put all – or almost all – the green ones in a pile? Why, you also create an orange pile, whether you intended to or not.
This is what has transpired, progressively, over the past four decades in Mississippi and elsewhere across the nation. Creation of black-majority districts, especially across the states obliged to “do better” under the terms of Section 4, has resulted in creation of concentrated white-majority districts, too. The green jelly beans have stuck together and the orange jelly beans have, too.
We’re casual about this. In conversations in the Legislature and elsewhere, people talk talk matter-of-factly about “white districts” and “black districts,” of “white school board seats” and “black school board seats.”
Once, one race owned all the seats and power. Now both races own seats, but the people in them have no motivation to talk to each other. They need only keep their constituencies happy. Even engaging in conversation and problem-solving with “the other camp” is perceived as a weakness.
Reactions to the Supreme Court ruling were predictable. The Left called it a giant step backward and the Right said, “It’s about time!”
Examine closely, however, what state Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, told The Associated Press. Insisting the provision was still needed, Blackmon said, “The fact is, Mississippi is still very much a racially polarized state, particularly with regard to its politics.”
That’s an accurate statement. Here’s the follow-up question: What bridges can be or will be built as long as the “fix” for polarization is to polarize? How do the “black districts” and “white districts” to which we’ve become so accustomed advance the public’s collective interests?
There’s no reason to believe the Supreme Court ruling will result in a return to drawing voting district lines that, as a half-century ago, intentionally made minorities irrelevant. Discrimination is as illegal this week as it was last week.
If, however, there’s a gradual return to creating districts based on roads, county lines and such, then it’s possible – just possible – that school boards and town councils and boards of supervisors will have members who represent broader constituencies. Perpetuating polarization is not a path to progress. To get elected in better-balanced districts, candidates would have to listen to a lot more voices than they did in 1965, and a lot more than they do today.
That would be a good thing.
CHARLIE MITCHELL is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.