You’re Not Supposed to Care About Mississippi

We’ve been told that the worst that happens to the state is just part of America’s natural order. It’s time that changes.

Thomas Robertson, Flickr

I used to be deathly afraid of tornadoes when I was a kid. And in Mississippi, tornadoes were abundant. I’d spend hours of my summer days glued to the Weather Channel any time gray clouds would form. If a storm was on the horizon, I’d watch the meteorologists explain the paths of the storm. To me, it seemed like they would say things along the lines of “this storm is going to cause major damage to New Orleans and pass on through to Birmingham.” If they ever mentioned my home, I knew that meant there was total devastation coming.

Ive been thinking about those anxious summer days more and more as I’ve watched the news about the catastrophe in Mississippi. A few weeks ago, a winter storm tore through the South. I’m sure you’ve heard of it concerning what it did to Texas: An unknown number of people froze to death in their homes as the state experienced a massive power grid and leadership failure. Ted Cruz ditching the state was the top news story for days.

That same storm, however, ravaged Mississippi and incapacitated the state’s already-outdated drainage system. Thousands of people in the mostly Black capitol of Jackson have gone without water for weeks. The story went under-reported nationally until grassroots organizations were finally able to get the nation’s attention. The same thing happened in ’05 when Hurricane Katrina tore the Mississippi Gulf Coast to shreds. We had family and friends go missing. Some were never found.

It has always felt like it’s harder to get the rest of the country to pay attention to Mississippi—and it’s the result of the entirety of American history.

We don’t care about Mississippi because we’re not supposed to. America sees everything bad that happens to the state as the natural order of things because Mississippi and the people there are supposed to suffer. The state and its history of cruelty to Black folks stand as a beacon of cognitive dissonance for the rest of the country that needs to look at what it believes is the worst of us to make itself feel better about its own racism. At least we’re not Mississippi is an act of patriotism tantamount to the National Anthem itself.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve told people I was raised in Mississippi only for them to respond by asking me about the racism. As if I wasn’t called a nigger in Minneapolis or pulled over by cops and harassed in every city from Boston to New Orleans. The racism that permeates Mississippi bleeds through the rest of America. The sentiment that makes the most powerful in Mississippi hate us so much isn’t unique to the state. It’s the execution and follow-through of that hatred that has made the state so damn oppressive. Mississippi isn’t any more racist than any other place in America. Instead, the White power structure lording over it has been unencumbered by the need to pretend they’re anything else than a weapon of White supremacy. To put it simply: Mississippi is just a few decades ahead of America’s overall right wing.

The cruelty of Mississippi’s White power has aimed its weapons at the most vulnerable among us from the beginning and hasn’t stopped. Jackson, for instance, is under siege from a Republican state government that only wants to undermine the local Black leadership. That same government tried to take control of the city’s airport and school district, stripping as much power as possible. The lack of water in Jackson is a direct result of a racist history of state leaders who want to undermine Black leadership and punish the Black residents who vote for them. And that state leadership is only White because of some of the country’s most oppressive voting rights laws.

But we’re not told that. The country processes Black Mississippians’ reality as a result of malaise, apathy, and stupidity, rather than as a calculated, centuries-long concerted effort to do the most harm. As a result, whatever happens to Mississippi is categorized as what’s supposed to happen. As if the natural order of America is that Black folks are simply supposed to endure this country’s worst simply because they live within an arbitrarily defined landmass with invisible boundaries. So when the state experiences winter storms and loss of water and hurricanes it seems negligible because this is just what happens in Mississippi. Ruin is part of the natural American order for a place like that.

I could tell you that Mississippi has been central in every liberation movement this damn country has ever seen. I could tell you about Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers and COFO and Hollis Watkins and Annie Devine and Victoria Gray and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Freedom Farm Cooperative and keep listing things for the next hour. I could tell you that Mississippi is the American dream of what White power looks like and that everything happening to Mississippi is on every racist’s vision board for the rest of the country and if you don’t stand in solidarity with the state then you’re only greasing the aisles for the same to happen to yours. If you wanted more proof, I could tell you to just look at how voter suppression has spread across the country like a legislative pandemic. I could tell you that these are all reasons to care about what happens to Mississippi. But I shouldn’t have to. I should just be able to tell you that the state is full of human beings who deserve the same fight and work that we dedicate to other states we’ve deemed worthy of fighting for.

So why don’t we care about Mississippi? Because the worst of America stands to gain from our ignoring what happens to a state still reeling. A state where thousands still don’t have water. And a state that shouldn’t have to fight so hard for you to see the best it can provide—and the worst it has to endure.

Level Sr. Writer covering Race, Culture, Politics, TV, Music. Previously: The Undefeated, The Atlantic, Washington Post. Forthcoming book: The Movement Made Us

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