No Coincidences in Mississippi

Jamelle Bouie read Sarah Varney’s important piece at Politico Magazine about the disastrous non-implementation of the Affordable Care Act in Mississippi, and at Slate made the obvious connections that somehow aren’t so obvious to conservatives who bridle at any suggestion that there’s an iota of racism in their ranks. He summed it up very succinctly:

Mississippi has poor social outcomes and a threadbare safety net. It also has—and has long had—the largest black population in the country. And it’s where slavery was very lucrative, and Jim Crow most vicious. This is not a coincidence….

For nearly a 100 years, Mississippi was a white supremacist police state. Of course this made a mark on its culture. Of course these ideas of exclusion—and specifically, of racial hostility to outside interference and public goods—are still embedded in the structure of its politics.

Today, Mississippi is politically polarized along racial lines. Whites are Republicans, blacks are Democrats, and the former controls state politics. Public investment isn’t just disdained, it’s attacked as racially suspect. “The Republican Party has never been the food stamp party, or the party of pork until desperation set in with Thad Cochran’s re-election bid,” said state Sen. Angela Hill during the Mississippi Senate Republican primary, in reference to Sen. Cochran’s outreach to black voters. The state is harshly carceral—jailing more people per capita than almost anywhere in the country, the majority of them black—and has a huge number of all-white private schools while the public school system is largely segregated.

You can understand all of this in terms of ordinary conservatism—and many people do—but this is a particularly strong conservatism shaped by a particularly brutal racial history. It’s a small-government philosophy that has its roots in the pro-slavery thought of John C. Calhoun, emerged as resistance to Reconstruction, resurfaced in the fight against civil rights, and is now mostly ideological, if attenuated—but not separate—from its roots.

To think otherwise–to think that the white people of Mississippi just happened to stumble on a political philosophy that produced the closest possible outcomes and social and economic arrangements to Jim Crow–is to express an extraordinarily low opinion of the power of history. You might as well think the post-Civil War “black codes” designed to reduce former slaves to the condition closest to their former bondage had nothing to do with slavery, because after all the South had accepted (at bayonet’s edge, of course) emancipation. Subjective racism isn’t really the point here; plenty of good people of good will have embraced terrible political causes in the course of human history. But you can’t expect people to look at a place like Mississippi and unsee the threads that tie together generations of white conservatism, and unthink the judgment that once again “state’s rights” and “sovereignty” mean powerlessness, poverty, sickness and even an early grave for a big portion of the population.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.