While reading Governor Barbour's reflections about the changes in race relations in Mississippi over the last 50 years, I couldn't help but notice the inconvenient facts missing from his perspective.
Governor Barbour praises the end of de jure segregation but fails to mention the persistent de facto segregation between the races. For instance, close to 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Mississippi public schools remain almost as segregated as when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed it. The difference today is that most blacks go to public schools and many whites go to private "academies," almost all of which were started as segregated institutions to avoid integration.
Additionally, the governor says opportunity is mostly equal between the races. The Governor, however, must not realize the impact poverty has on a child's opportunity. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's annual Kids Count Report, black children are almost twice as likely to live in poverty as white children. The governor's ignorance of these facts may explain why he attributes unequal outcomes to different levels of talent and work effort. I, on the other hand, know that a child living in poverty has much less opportunity than the child of a prominent lawyer, especially when the state purposefully limited the educational and economic opportunities of that child's ancestors for centuries.
The governor also points to the high number of black elected officials as evidence of racial progress. It is true that Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state -- which is to be expected, considering it has the highest percentage of blacks. However, these achievements are evidence of the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act rather than changes in racial attitudes.
In 1991, for example, the Mississippi legislature adopted a redistricting plan that attempted to continue to minimize black political strength. It wasn't until blacks filed a suit under the Voting Rights Act against the election law change in Federal Court followed by new elections held the next year that blacks had fair political representation at the Capitol. With very few exceptions, electoral advancements for blacks were a result of lawsuits and the protection of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Moreover, voting in Mississippi is extremely racially polarized, with more than 80 percent of whites voting Republican and 90 percent of blacks voting Democratic. In fact, even in areas were only democratic candidates are on the ballot, racial block voting is the norm with whites voting almost exclusively for white candidates. Thus, few of these black elected officials receive much white electoral support. In fact, no black person has been elected to state-wide office in Mississippi since Reconstruction. Governor Barbour may attribute this to ideology; however, it is difficult for me to accept this explanation when whites voted overwhelmingly Democratic up until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 when blacks started to vote Democratic. In other words, what else has changed?
Governor Barbour is right to be proud of the progress made in Mississippi race relations. No state has come farther (or had so far to go), and that progress should be celebrated. Still, the state must be cautious not to let this celebration cause us to ignore the progress that must still be made for Mississippi to live up to its potential, even if that means we must confront inconvenient and uncomfortable facts.
Perhaps, my greatest disagreement is with the governor's view that we will never be able to end racial discrimination and animus in Mississippi or anywhere else. I believe we can and must. And considering how far Mississippi has come in the last 50 years, I believe history is on my side.