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Don’t Hate Mississippi

Yes, the state on Tuesday voted for a white racist for Senate. But liberals shouldn’t write off Mississippi as a lost cause.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

It’s never a shock to see white Mississippians cover themselves in shame. They’ve been doing it reliably throughout the entire history of a place that became known as the “lynching state” long before the inceptions of the Confederacy, the Klan, or Jim Crow. “By the 1830s,” David Oshinsky writes in his history of the state’s racist criminal-justice system, Worse Than Slavery, “Mississippi was viewed as a place of violent moods and minimal restraint, where passion took precedence over the law.”

In politics, too, white Mississippians have always put passion—for white supremacy and black subjugation—above all pragmatic considerations. With clockwork regularity, every election, they’ve chosen to keep their state an economic and educational backwater, an international symbol of America’s racial lunacy.

On Tuesday, of course, they did it again. White Mississippi voters punched their ballots in overwhelming numbers for appointed U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, a casually racist mediocrity, and rejected one of the most thoroughly centrist Democratic candidates on the ballot in 2018. They chose to shame themselves all over again rather than vote for former congressman and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, a Clinton Democrat whose election would have at least complicated, if not erased, the long-held view of Mississippi as the most race-haunted and self-defeating state in the union. And they made that choice in spite of—in some cases, probably because of—another two-week dose of self-humiliation in the national spotlight, as Hyde-Smith’s neo-Confederate sympathies kept making headlines.

Espy gave them every chance to break the pattern. The consistent message of his campaign was an appeal—Espy is too mild-mannered to call it a “challenge”—to white voters to opt, at long last, for sanity and a brighter future. “Mississippi, we still just seem to be mired,” as he put it on the morning of the runoff election. “Still last on all the good lists, and at the top of all the bad lists. All the things you want to be first in, we’re lagging toward the bottom.”

In his closing ad, Espy made the stakes clear—if, that is, Hyde-Smith’s professed wishes for a front-row seat at a “public hanging” and her “joke” about the desirability of suppressing black voter turnout hadn’t already done so. “We can’t afford a senator who embarrasses us and reinforces the stereotypes we’ve worked so hard to overcome,” he said, trying to flatter white voters into crossing the rubicon for a black candidate. With the grassroots groups who fueled Doug Jones’s win in Alabama last year (and Stacey Abrams’s and Andrew Gillum’s near-misses on Nov. 6 in Georgia and Florida) producing high turnout among the black 38 percent of the state, Espy only needed about one-quarter of whites to see the light. In the end, even that was asking too much.

As the outcome became clear on Tuesday night, the ritual shaming-and-blaming began. Sure, Espy had shaved ten points off President Trump’s winning margin in the state in 2016. And yes, the new black-power voting movement in the Deep South had turned what should have been a cakewalk—Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in the state since 1982, or even come close—into an actual contest.

But none of that mattered to many members of the liberal Twitterati. Here was a prime opportunity to trot out those dismissive one-liners and “Mississippi Goddamn” references, to take another round of potshots at America’s favorite state to hate. “Mississippi,” quipped comedian Tony Posnanski, “is the person that looks at the McDonalds menu for 15 minutes that hasn’t changed for 30 years and still orders the McRacist sandwich.” Andy Lassner, co-producer of The Ellen Show, got 36,000 likes for his contribution: “Turns out it’s still 1951 in Mississippi.” An Indivisible organizer from Texas encapsulated a whole mini-genre of comments with this: “Seriously Mississippi you deserve to be at the bottom of the barrel.”

It’s amazing how 46 percent of a state can be rendered invisible by an election result. As I scrolled through the ritual Mississippi abuse, it became clear that most such comments were made by white liberal tweeters—few of whom bothered to note that it was only white Mississippi that had earned another piling-on. Atlantic writer Vann Newkirk, who delivered some of the most thoughtful dispatches from the state during the runoff, certainly noticed: “All I see is people who couldn’t give a damn about poor black folks in Mississippi and have never deemed them worthy of attention or assistance crying on Twitter about how bad Mississippi is,” he tweeted on Wednesday. “Kids are going to go to bed hungry. Fathers gonna work under the whip at Parchman and mothers gonna struggle with childbirth. All under all y’all’s watch for years and years. But damn them all because a race MSNBC told you to care about didn’t go the way you wanted it to.”

Hating on Mississippi has long been a national pastime. But when the entire state is stereotyped, the largest concentration of African Americans in the county is basically erased. Author Kiese Laymon nailed the injustice of that: “When folks diss the blackest state in the nation with the richest history Black organic resistance and Black cultural work, please know they are not just hating Mississippi; they are often hating the Black folk of Mississippi who have given the world a blueprint for liberation.”

That legacy of resistance is not, as this election showed, a thing of the past, a relic of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The surprising competitiveness of this Senate election wasn’t just the result of the GOP nominating a clown to run against the classy Espy. It grew out of the progressive organizing that led the state to stop the anti-abortion “personhood” movement in its tracks by shooting down a constitutional amendment that would have outlawed birth control and in-vitro fertilization. As I noted last week, it stemmed from the efforts of Black Voters Matter, local NAACPs, and the array of new grassroots voter-engagement groups that sprung up down South in the wake of Trump’s election. It was spawned by the progressive uprising in Jackson, the state capitol, which last year elected young Chokwe Antar Lumumba mayor on a promise to turn it into “the most radical city on the planet.”

Old Mississippi might have won another victory on Tuesday, but signs of a new Mississippi are there for anyone who cares to see them. You can hear it from young whites as well as blacks, including Ole Miss’s first female Rhodes Scholar, Jaz Brisack. Interviewed last week by the Oxford Eagle, Brisack did not mince words: “Given that our state amplifies the voices of white supremacist women like Cindy Hyde-Smith who reinforce and uphold misogynist policies,” she said, “I’m glad to be able to provide a very different example of how an empowered Southern woman acts.” The day after the election, her fellow students organized an impressive protest calling for the removal of the Confederate monument on campus.

But that’s not the Mississippi many white liberals outside the state want to see. There’s a reason why Mississippi is the place they love to loathe: It’s comforting. We live, after all, in a country that went to war over slavery, then created Jim Crow—and where a white nationalist used racist rhetoric to become president in 2016, put over the top by a number of those infinitely more enlightened states up North. Mississippi is not an outlier. It’s the America that white Americans don’t want to recognize as their own.

There’s no excuse for the white people in Mississippi who knowingly elected a white supremacist on Tuesday. There’s no excuse for the criminal injustices and economic deprivation that black folks continue to suffer in a state that stubbornly keeps a symbol of hate on its flag. But there’s also no excuse for the second-class status of African Americans in most of the rest of the country. And there’s no excuse for pretending that institutional racism, violent bigotry, and blinkered voters exist only in the Deep South. Dissing Mississippi is a convenient way to shunt the problem aside, to say, “Hey, at least we’re not them.” Even if we are.