At a holiday party this weekend, two people asked me about the recent senate runoff election—the one where the voters of Mississippi chose an unqualified and demonstrably racist woman over a moderate black man with a long history of public service and years of experience at both the state and federal level. One friend said he’d been waiting for me to write about it. I told him I wasn’t sure I could write about it—partly because I’m too angry about the whole mess, but also, what is there to say?
When you are from Mississippi and live elsewhere, you will spend a lot of time trying to explain your home state to others. Mostly, you will fail. It’s exhausting to try and tell someone what you love about a state that behaves so badly and performs so poorly on almost every level. At some point, it becomes ridiculous to talk about the food, the music, the literature, the way the humidity makes your skin feel soft, the rich green smell that hits you in the early days of a long summer, the azaleas that grow tall as trees, the ripe figs that fall off in your hands when you touch them. What does any of that matter if the state can’t move forward? Who cares about fried catfish when the schools are the worst in the nation? And doesn’t blues music just bring you down harder when you listen to it within spitting distance of the worst poverty in America?
I wrote about this election in the week before the runoff and expressed my hope that the state where I was born and raised would finally take a step into the future by electing the best person for the job. I knew it probably wouldn’t happen. I’ve spent too much of my life in Mississippi. I know better than to get my hopes up. I’ve seen the yard signs begging passersby to love Jesus and vote Republican. I’ve seen the Confederate Flag pasted over the window of a suburban home. I’ve read the alarming rhetoric from former classmates on social media. But I’ve also talked to Mississippians who are working hard for meaningful change in the state. Progressives exist in Mississippi, but they are often drowned out by the hateful us-against-the-world chorus of people who idealize the good old days, by which they mean the days of slavery and segregation.
There’s a common refrain in Mississippi. It goes something like this: Just because someone makes a joke or a careless remark, it doesn’t mean they are racist. It’s what’s in a person’s heart that matters.
The problem with that reasoning is that everyone knows the heart is connected to the mouth. A person who makes comments about attending a public hanging in a state where lynchings were as common as sweet tea is a racist. A person who jokes about how maybe not everyone ought to be able to vote in a state where many black voters are still disenfranchised is a racist. A person’s age or background cannot excuse racism. If your grandmother still uses the n-word because “she came up in a different time,” your grandmother is a racist. She knew the n-word was offensive 50 years ago and she took no pains to excise it from her vocabulary. That hate coming out of her mouth festers in her heart.
Mississippi has elected a terrible person to represent the state. It has exposed its own dark heart to the world yet again. I hate it. It’s embarrassing and it’s damaging to a state that can hardly stand more damage. I don’t have any rationalizations for why this happened or how it will be better in the future. I’m not sure it will be better. It might get worse. If it does, don’t look to me to defend my home state. I have no defense to offer.