I‘ve heard some iteration of “you from Mississippi? Word? Damn, that sounds rough” every few days since I moved from the state to go to college. The intimation, of course, is that I grew up in a state that’s rougher for Black folks than anywhere else because of its history of violence against Black folks. Sometimes those statements are followed by anecdotes of uncles or aunts who saw a Klan rally or used to live in the state and moved out vowing to never return; or how the person drove through the state once and saw a noose hanging off of a pickup truck and swore that he or she would rather drive from Arkansas to Tennessee to Alabama instead of the Magnolia State.
I want to respond by telling them that I didn’t see cops beat up Black folks damn near to death until I was seven and saw the video of Rodney King begging for his life on the Los Angeles pavement. I want to tell them that I didn’t know much about how cops killed Black folks and got away with it until I heard about Amadou Diallo got shot at 41 times in the Bronx. I want to tell them that I didn’t get called a nigger until I wound up at a keg party in a small town in Minneapolis. I want to tell them about the flight attendant who thought I was a rapper because I got upgraded to first class on my way to a college visit in Maine.
I want to tell them that the cop who pulled me over two blocks from my house in Jackson, Mississippi, and threatened to arrest me and impound my car isn’t much different from the one who pulled me over in New Orleans and asked the white girl next to me if she was being held against her will. Or the cop in Minneapolis who had a white-knuckle grip on his gun as he pulled me over in Iowa. I want to tell them about the call I got from Homeland Security because of death threats over my writing; from someone in Boston.
Instead, I don’t say anything. There’s really no point. Because eventually, the person I’m talking to will learn what I’ve known my whole life: Mississippi is a reflection of America. America is a reflection of Mississippi.
Cindy Hyde-Smith, the newly elected Mississippi senator, is a racist. She made national headlines when a video surfaced of the Republican politician remarking that she would be with a supporter even if he invited her to “a public hanging,” a throwback to Mississippi’s history of lynching Black folks. She also advocated for voter suppression, channeling the state’s tradition of trying its hardest to stop Black people from voting. Last week, the Jackson Free Press reported that Hyde-Smith went to a school whose purpose was to keep white students segregated from their Black counterparts and that she enrolled her daughter in a similar school. Of course, this didn’t stop white voters from marching to polling places to support her.
Beyond white support is the immense injustice caused by voter suppression in Mississippi – a state with a 36 percent black registered voter population that has repeatedly been unable get a Democrat voted into the Senate or governor’s mansion. Mississippi prides itself on suppressing the Black vote by incarcerating Black folks and being the most difficult state for people to access ballots. So the end result was what we thought it would be: Hyde-Smith won convincingly and it’s hard to imagine the win was in spite of her racism as opposed to being bolstered by it.
Of course, Hyde-Smith’s win has only brought about the same comments that I spent my adulthood hearing: Ideas that this is typical Mississippi behavior, that this is why Mississippi is so backward; that we shouldn’t have expected better from a state like Mississippi that’s so predicated on maintaining white supremacy.
It’s as if these people forgot that a man who called Mexicans rapists, admitted to grabbing women by their privates and advocated for the lynching of innocent Black men still won Pennsylvania, Michigan and dozens of other states not named Mississippi. Quarantining America’s racism to Mississippi is a way for the rest of the country to pretend like it doesn’t have the same anti-Blackness coursing through its veins. Pretending like Mississippi is the sole headquarters for violence against Black folks is only for the rest of the country to abstain from having to reckon with its role in Black oppression. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s election win isn’t “typical Mississippi.” Cindy Hyde-Smith’s election win is typical America.
Sure, at its worst, the state embodies the type of voter suppression and inequality that men within the country want to replicate for generations to come. But a refusal to see the state for what it is — a reflection of the country that it calls home — is only a way to placate the guilt and racism that is as part of America as it is the state it pretends to be so ashamed of.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.