George Will Implies Mississippi Is Post-Racial

26 June 2014

George Will—who recently got his column dropped from a paper for his shitty remarks about victims of sexual assault, saying that they enjoy a “coveted status that confers privileges” on college campuses—continued in an equally offensive, but less obviously inflammatory way in his blurb “Mississippi Votes Its Appetite, Rejecting Tea Party”.[1]

Will wrote: “And what’s the matter with Mississippi? The fact—the state has waited a long time for this to be said—that it is so much like the rest of the nation.”

By what measure?

In terms of income, Mississippians generally make only 64 cents on the dollar compared to the rest of the United States, averaging $15,853 per year compared to $21,587. Caucasians, on average, make only 77% of their race-peers nationally; African-Americans only 57%; people the census refers to as “Asian” are percentage-wise as disadvantaged as whites (76%) compared to their peers, while those who are “some other race” or Hispanic/Latino are roughly the same as their national peers (99% and 96%, respectively). People who are “two or more races” are a little above the national average for people who are “two or more races” (108%), and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders are approximately 31% higher than Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders elsewhere in the United States. But before any pull up stakes and move to Mississippi, they’re still making only very slightly more than Caucasians in the state who, let’s remember, make only 77 cents on the dollar compared to their average national peers.

If we look at average household income, Pacific Islanders are only 2% better off than Caucasians in Mississippi than the 7% better off nationally. And this comparatively lower rate generally continues across the board in Mississippi. In absolute terms, people make less money by a considerable margin than elsewhere in the US on average, but also by percentage they also make less than their demographic peers. Or, if you prefer, you can look at the poverty values on this map to see in graphical and colourful terms how “like the rest of the nation” Mississippi is. Removing demographic ethnicity from the picture, no group by age makes an income comparable to the national average for that group. In fact, the group that comes closest, making only 80 cents on the dollar, are people 25 and under; elsewhere in the US, age 45 generally marks one’s best earning years.

This below-average status means that Mississippi is not “so much like the rest of the nation” as Will claims.

How about educationally? Mississippi can boast a tiny percentage of high school graduates higher than nationally, 29.4% versus 28.6%; an 0.8% difference not sufficiently accounted for by the 3% larger grade school through high school educational population. Amongst college drop-outs, Mississippi does fare about equally to the national average, 26.6% versus 27.4%, but here the 3.4% smaller college-going population may explain this smaller number. For people with college degrees (up to doctorates), Mississippi falls well below the national average, 16.9% versus 24.4%.

This all means that nationally 19.6% have less than a high school diploma, while that number is 27.1% in Mississippi—nearly 40% higher. In terms of quality, rather than quantity, of education, as of 2012 Mississippi schools ranked 45th in the nation, taking consolation that South Dakota’s were the worst, except that Mississippi is the worst when it comes to math and science education as of 2011. Here, it may take consolation (along with the rest of us) that globally, the US itself ranked 25th of 34 (in 2009) compared to China, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Finland.

This below-average status means that Mississippi is not “so much like the rest of the nation” as Will claims.

Of course, once you’re poor, other superlatives of abjection come easily. Will notes the pork that Mississippi’s senator Thad Cochran has served up

during his 33 years on the Appropriations Committee. This bright red state has the nation’s lower per capita income, the highest federal funding as a percent of revenue, and a surplus of cognitive dissonance between its professed conservatism and its actual enjoyment of the benefits Cochran can now continue to shove its way (¶2).

This seems loaded dice. If you have the lowest per capita income, i.e., if you’re amongst the poorest, then virtually by definition you will have “the highest federal funding as a percent of revenue.” Citing a percentage here may be disingenuous; it’s clear that Mississippi is not wallowing in a pig trough of pork given its dismal socioeconomic status. But where Will really fires up the offense meter—certainly not in a way that will make most “white” folk in the US call for his expulsion from their local paper—occurs when he says, “Mississippi today is burning with embarrassment, but not, at long last, embarrassment about race” (¶7):

Its Republican primary occurred three days after the 50th anniversary of the disappearance and murder of three civil rights workers—Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney—near the town of Philadelphia in Neshoba County. Today, Philadelphia’s mayor is an African-American, and Mississippi, which is 37 percent African-American, has more African-American elected officials than any other state (¶8)

I’m not sure what’s more benighted in this claim: the recentering of Whiteness over the murders of three northern kids compared to the thousands of African-Americans killed in Mississippi, or the privileging of this particularly beloved White narrative in the very state where one of the most crucial events and narratives for Black Civil Rights occurred, Emmett Till’s murder. But what Will does not mention, when he says that Mississippi has more African-American elected officials than any other state, is that Mississippi has more African-Americans than any other state. Only the District of Columbia has a higher Black population. One should rather look at the number of Black elected officials by population in general

In 1987, folks had already noted that Mississippi had the highest absolute number of Black elected officials, but Alabama still had “the highest percentage of black officeholders” (from here). Echoing my point against Will’s bland claim: “Not surprisingly, the geographic distribution of black elected officials closely parallels the distribution of the total black population in the U.S.”[2] However, as Hardy-Fanta, Sierra, Lien, Pinderhughes, & Davis (2005) make clear, “the data also show that population numbers alone do not produce descriptive representation” (9, from here). Specifically, while Mississippi has the highest Black population in the United States, it ranks 14th for percentage of Black elected officials out of 20 considered (Ohio, Illinois, and Ohio are numbers 1–3, respectively).[3]

Again, then, this below average status makes Mississippi not “so much like the rest of the nation” as Will claims.

Of course, a sort of consensus declares Mississippi as historically one of the worst, if not the worst, slave states; it was, with South Carolina, one place where the number of slaves considerably outnumbered the non-slave population. [4] That again makes the history of Mississippi not “so much like the rest of the nation” as Will claims.

Of course, Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, double the rate of the world leader (the United States, both per capita and by absolute numbers), at 1,341 per 100,000. To put that in perspective, the population of India is 27661% times greater than Louisiana’s, yet Louisiana’s incarceration rate per capita is 4470% greater than India’s. Mississippi’s incarceration rate is 1,155 per 100,000, or 3850% higher than India’s. This is far above the national average and makes Mississippi not “so much like the rest of the nation” as Will claims.

As far as inmates condemned on death row, despite the considerably smaller number of Black people in the US, in approximately 17 states is the number of White inmates on death row larger than the number of Blacks. Florida is one such place, but it also has the second highest number of condemned inmates. By contrast, Pennsylvania and Texas have the most disproportionate numbers of Black compared to White inmates on death row, 107 versus 67 and 116 versus 83, respectively. In part, this is due to the overwhelmingly well-supported fact that someone (of any race) who kills a white person is far more likely to get the death penalty than for killing any other race:

Since 1977, the overwhelming majority of death row defendants have been executed for killing white victims, although African-Americans make up about half of all homicide victims (from here)

Nationally (just considering Black and White inmates), there are 1,334 white people (50.81%) on death row and 1,291 Black people (45.83%); in Mississippi there are 22 Whites (45.83%) and 26 Blacks (54.16%) on death row. So if the national average has Whites slightly ahead, then this once again makes Mississippi not “so much like the rest of the nation” as Will claims.

However, some might want to say that since the US Black/White population breaks down to 13.1% and 77.9%, respectively, while in Mississippi the numbers run 37.4% and 59.9%, respectively, then this does seem to make the disproportionateness of the overrepresentation of Blacks on death row in Mississippi not as monstrously severe as the national average. If I’ve thought through the math correctly, then with respect to death row inmates, there is only a very small difference between U.S. national and Mississippi state death sentences for Blacks, 2.69 per 100,000 versus 2.33 (a 14% difference), while Mississippi has a higher condemnation rates for Whites than nationally, 1.23 per 100,000 versus 0.51 (a 41% difference). In theory, I have incorporated the relatively different population sizes in these calculations, but the most important thing to remember: this concerns only death row inmates, not prison populations generally.

I mention the death penalty, because “Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama were the leading lynching states. These five states furnished nearly half the total victims. Mississippi had the highest incidence of lynchings in the South as well as the highest for the nation, with Georgia and Texas taking second and third places, respectively” (from here). Once again, this makes the history of Mississippi not “so much like the rest of the nation” as Will claims.

How about some more measures? For real estate value, Mississippi ranks 45th (just behind West Virginia, but ahead of Indiana, Arkansas, Kansas, Ohio, and Iowa) with an average listing price $201,450, well below the average for all of the US markets (from here). Or, by one measure of cost of living, Mississippi at least finishes dead last, which most decidedly makes it once again not “so much like the rest of the nation” as Will claims. Mississippi claims its main industry is agriculture (employing 29% of its workforce), but 2.3 billion of its 6.3 billion comes from poultry (from here)–not exactly a growth sector. In 2013, per capita real GDP was lowest of all fifty states in Mississippi, at $32,421—that’s only 66% of the national per capita real GDP rate of $49,115. Mississipians can take heart that this rate of GDP growth (1.6%) was at least in the middle most category (ranking 29th for growth overall). However, there was a bit of a bubble in 2012, which Mississippi was ahead of the curve on; by 2013, it had slowed down considerably; compared to the national slow-down (28%), Mississippi braked 45%, sliding from a 3.5% growth rate (compared to 2.5% nationally) in 2012 to 1.6% in 2013 (1.8% nationally). That’s above-average bad performance–not “so much like the rest of the nation” as Will claims. And when you consider Mississippi in conjunction with all of various regions in the US (like the Great Lakes Region, the Far West, &c) that the BEA keeps tabs on, Mississippi’s slow-down put it at 47th (out of 63 possible); once again well below the national average (which was 34th) and thus not “so much like the rest of the nation” as Will claims.

The most obnoxious part of Will’s assertion, besides its obvious inaccuracy or non-truth as the above makes evident, centres around what looks that desire to once again make the absurd claim that we live in a post-racial United States—because it must clearly be the case: if Mississippi (as the worst slave state ever) is post-racial, then surely the rest of us must be as well.

I’d like to think Will’s understanding of racial history doesn’t derive merely from the movie he obviously references (Mississippi Burning), but when his historical consciousness can’t remember to mention Emmett Till, and when his invocation of a Black elected official in Philadelphia, Mississippi seems to bear affinities to “well I have a Black friend so I can’t be racist” kinds of tropes, then it becomes difficult to give him the benefit of that doubt.

Lastly, I want to make clear: by citing all of these unattractive statistics about Mississippi, it should be clear that this points above all and most glaringly to the historical consequences of Mississippi as one of the worst, if not the worst, of slave states. It’s not unreasonable to expect that a state with a larger slave population than owners would eventually have the second highest per capita prison rate in the world—what are all those descendants of owners to do with all of that “surplus labour”. One could reasonably expect, where White terrorism reached its highest point (in lynchings) in playing a role to generate the kind of poverty we now see in Mississippi that a lack of access to education plays a key part in that. It should be no surprise that the White Mississippi power structure has sent the same guy to Congress for 33 years, while its own numbers for Black elected officials only reaches 14th out of 20 states considered.

All of this just makes it that much more grotesque that Will can use Mississippi as his “test case” for implying we’re post-racial.


[1] By “less inflammatory,” I mean that White folks will be less inclined to notice how offensive the remarks are.

[2] The rest of the passage runs, “The ten states with the highest numbers of black elected officials are Mississippi (548), Louisiana (505), Alabama (448), Georgia (445), Illinois (434), North Carolina (353), South Carolina (340), Arkansas (319), Michigan (316), and California (293). Nationally, the total increased from 6,424 to 6,681. Not surprisingly, the geographic distribution of black elected officials closely parallels the distribution of the total black population in the U.S. The South has 53 percent of the nation’s black population and 62 percent of all black elected officeholders. The second largest concentration of black officeholders, 19.2 percent, is in the North Central U.S., where 19.8 percent of the nation’s black population is located. The Northeast, with 18.5 percent of the total black population, has 10.6 percent of black elected officials, and 5.7 percent of all black elected officials are in the West, where 8.9 percent of all blacks live”

[3] Not unimportantly, the most recent gains for African-Americans politically have been through Black women. And to contextualize Black elected representation more generally, we should note that the rate of increase in Black representation (to Congress) has been decreasing:

And while the last five cycles set a record high for African Americans in the U.S. House – with 198 blacks elected from 2002-2010 – this marks the slowest decade-by-decade increase during this 90-year span.

African Americans won only 10 more seats during the last five cycles (198) than from 1992-2000 (188), or an increase of just 5.3 percent.

By contrast, the number of blacks elected to the U.S. House had increased by 150 percent, 80 percent, 78 percent, 138 percent, 105 percent, 40 percent, and 72 percent over the previous seven decades (from here).

[4] It did not have the highest slave population, however; that honour goes to Virginia.


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