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raceAhead: What We Can Learn From Mississippi’s Past

Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith peaks out from behind a curtain before a rally with US President Donald Trump at Landers Center Ð Arena in Southaven, Mississippi, on October 2, 2018Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith peaks out from behind a curtain before a rally with US President Donald Trump at Landers Center Ð Arena in Southaven, Mississippi, on October 2, 2018
Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith peaks out from behind a curtain before a rally with US President Donald Trump at Landers Center Ð Arena in Southaven, Mississippi, on Oct. 2, 2018. Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images

The final Senate contest of the midterm season is happening now in Mississippi, between incumbent Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith and her Democratic challenger Mike Espy, who hopes to become the first black Senator from the state since Blanche Bruce left office in 1881.

At 37%, Mississippi has the highest percentage of black voters in the country, a fact that would normally signal a robust competition. But instead, the state’s difficult history of voter suppression and deep racial polarization has led to, among other things, chronically low voter turnout. As The Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk states in this must-read analysis, “like all black candidates for statewide office in the blackest state in the country, the odds are against [Espy].”

And yet, thanks to the disturbing remarks that tumbled out of the mouth of Sen. Hyde-Smith recently, the country is talking about Mississippi today for reasons beyond the political horse race.

Within the past two weeks, the sitting Senator made a joke about attending a public hanging that actually drew polite laughter from a crowd; said that she thought voter suppression was a great idea; posted a photo of herself posing in a Confederate soldier cap and holding a rifle and was revealed to have attended a “segregation academy” as a student. While the Lawrence County Academy in Brookhaven, Mississippi is now closed, it was part of a wave of schools opened as a workaround to integration.

Hyde-Smith’s attempt at an apology fell flat, perhaps because she doesn’t feel that one was necessary. This is just how the people she knows talks. But she has paid a price for just being herself. A host of corporate donors from Google, Pfizer, AT&T and Major League Baseball have asked that their political donations be refunded.

And now, with the kind of name recognition that politicians prefer not to have, she’s surfaced a lot of history that deserves to be considered long after one of the two candidates gives a concession speech.

For one thing, the last person the state of Mississippi hanged was Hilton Fortenberry, a black man, on January 11, 1940. The charge was murder. But the last person found hanging from a tree was Willie Andrew Jones, Jr. on February 8, 2018. Authorities ruled it a suicide, but his family disputes that claim. He joins a short but alarming list of men who have died by hanging under suspicious circumstances in the state in the last few years, all unresolved.

For another, it’s worth noting that many of us attended unofficial “segregation academies,” better known as high school. Black-white segregation has steadily worsened since the 1970s in every part of the country.

And Mississippi is in good company when it comes to gerrymandering, voter suppression, and intimidation. These tactics have returned in ugly ways since key provisions of the Voting Rights Act were repealed five years ago.

While the outcome of today’s race is now in the hands of Mississippi voters, local columnist and government reporter Caleb Bedillion offers an important perspective that may come in handy for anyone who is surprised to discover that how people around you normally speak might be deeply problematic.

He begins with a confession. “At first hearing, I found her words a little strange, even a bit crude, but I didn’t then think much on them,” he says, referring to her public hanging quip. Why?

The answer, as honest and straightforward as I can say it, is that reporting these remarks didn’t occur to me. To the best of my recollection, I heard “public hanging” as a play upon the senator’s background as a cattle farmer, a forced and clumsy invocation of frontier bravado.

More bluntly put, however, I heard what I heard because I am white.

From some quarters, there will be howls of outrage at this sentiment. I’ll receive angry emails. But the point is not that I am white and therefore a covert racist. The point is that, like everyone, I’ve had a limited life experience. And for me, that experience has been influenced by the history of whiteness in the American South.

I have no family members who were lynched. I have no relatives who were threatened with lynching. The words “public hanging” bring no particular menace to mind, other than a personal aversion to the grotesque spectacle of public executions. I had the luxury to hear those comments only within the context of pop culture’s western mythology.

Now, my confession: I am absolutely incapable of hearing Hyde-Smith’s remarks as some sort of hat tip to the good old days where law-abidin’ folks felt free to string up some cattle rustlers when they needed hangin’. (See? I can’t even fake it.)

But I will take his bigger point, that as painful as it is, this is the kind of work everyone needs to do.

For Bedillion, it starts at home: “If we white Southerners are proud of the progress our region has made, then we must honor the sacrifices that made this progress possible with a fresh willingness to risk anew a painful education.”

On Point

Texas is finally set to teach the true cause of the Civil War, mostlyIt’s not a full capitulation, however. State’s rights and sectionalism—loyalty to one’s region over country—are still on the menu. But for the first time, curriculum centering slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War will be implemented in the school year starting in 2019. Reviews are mixed. While the controversial decision has been a long time coming, it’s just a first step according to some critics. “The lies they’re telling are a little smaller than the lies they used to tell,” one high school history teachers tells The Texas Tribune.Smithsonian

Christine Blasey Ford is donating her GoFundMe money to sexual assault survivors
After her testimony during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation proceedings, a GoFundMe account raised nearly $650,000 to help the Blasey Ford family meet their sudden need for extra security and protection. In a statement last week, Blasey Ford expressed gratitude for the effort. “Your tremendous outpouring of support and kind letters have made it possible for us to cope with the immeasurable stress, particularly the disruption to our safety and privacy,” she wrote. But now, she’s paying it forward. She said the account would cease taking new donations and all remaining funds will be shared with organizations that support survivors of sexual assault.
Marie Claire

Meet the Honduran woman who was tear-gassed at the US border with her kids
The image is now seared in the public consciousness: A woman panicked and running from noxious gas, pulling her twin daughters, one in diapers, the other barefoot. Her name is Maria Meza, and the 39-year-old Honduran told Adolfo Flores from Buzzfeed News that she was standing by the border fence with her five children when agents fired at least three tear gas canisters at them. “I thought my kids were going to die with me because of the gas we inhaled.”
Buzzfeed News

The unexpected diversity of the College Football Playoff
On January 7, the College Football Playoff championship game will go off without a hitch, a prediction made cheekily possible by this startling fact: The organization that runs the CFP is made up mostly of women professionals. This includes five very senior women leaders, two of whom are women of color.  “People are still kind of surprised,” Allison Doughty, director of events and hospitality services told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Up to the COO and down to the interns, it’s one of the more diverse places I’ve worked.” Game on.
San Francisco Chronicle

 

The Woke Leader

Meek Mill calls for criminal justice reform
The rapper has turned what he calls his miscarriage of justice, being forced back into prison on a flimsy parole violation charge, into a personal mission. After serving five months, he’s resumed his life with a twist: He’s now a busy and vocal advocate for reform. “I’ve had the opportunity to meet with several lawmakers such as Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania,” he said, and he’s prepared to use his platform to bring fresh thinking to the masses. “We all need to hold our lawmakers accountable for supporting unfair or inhumane policies and all practices that perpetuate injustice, especially for the blacks and Latinos who fall prey to them most frequently.” Click through to learn more about his work and the foundation he’s preparing to launch.
New York Times

The whitewashed way we study music
Hannah Marie Robbins, PhD, the Frederick Loewe Research Associate at the University of Sheffield, was well into secondary school before she noticed the perpetual whiteness of arts education in Britain. It was in profound contrast to the children in the classroom, who hailed from a wide variety of countries and heritages. As a music student working with a mostly Western canon, “diversity” mostly focused on “black suffering” narratives and not on the rich cultural offerings of non-Western modes. Things haven’t, but must, improve, she says. “Shockingly, it remains possible and, according to considerable anecdotal evidence, normal to deliver introductions to Popular Music without covering any work by creatives of colour,” she says.
Media Diversified

A prison re-entry plan conceived by and for women
Vanessa Thompson was a long-time inmate in Indiana Women’s Prison. Once deeply troubled, a public policy class helped her develop the skills to lobby for reforms to legislation that touched the lives of vulnerable women—drug addiction, domestic violence, and sexual assault, chiefly among them. But when a local politician promised to address the scourge of abandoned homes due to the mortgage crisis, she had an idea. What if people re-entering society could help renovate the homes, and then live in them? “It’s a double restoration—not just of the house but of the person,” Thompson told The Marshall Project. The public policy class held video meetings with experts from Habitat for Humanity and Yale Law School, even the lawmakers themselves. And that’s when things started getting interesting.
The Marshall Project

Quote

With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people…I’ve directed two pictures, and I gave the blacks their proper position. I had a black slave in The Alamo, and I had a correct number of blacks in The Green Berets. If it’s supposed to be a black character, naturally I use a black actor. But I don’t go so far as hunting for positions for them. I think the Hollywood studios are carrying their tokenism a little too far.
John Wayne