Two emails came arrived within minutes of each other over the weekend. Both have to do with the reports my wife Deb and I have been doing from the “Golden Triangle” of Mississippi: the cities of Columbus, Starkville, and West Point. The reports started here, with a catfish fry; included this and this about schools and this and this about industry (and beer); and this about seeing small towns by air. There is more to come, from factories and from an orphanage and a college, plus a Marketplace report soon.
The two letters I’m quoting now are long but worth reading back-to-back. The first is from a man who grew up in the area—Lowndes County is one of three counties in the Triangle—and now lives several states to the north:
As a native of Lowndes County, MS and an alumnus of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, I wanted to let you know how thrilling it is to read the series of articles by you and your wife about my hometown and high school. I especially appreciate the clear lack of schadenfreude in the series so far. This is one of the few times in my adult life that I have had the privilege to read coverage of Mississippi in a national publication in which Mississippi was not used merely as a foil to highlight racial, social, or economic progress elsewhere. I understood perfectly what Joe Max Higgins meant by,”When Eurocopter came in, people started walking upright a little bit.”
The population and income maps included with the most recent article are excellent, illuminating, and depressing. I’m curious to see whether you will further explore the intersection of race and economy in the Golden Triangle. I would love to know whether the benefits of the economic development in the Golden Triangle have accrued to blacks as well as whites. Does the economic development help race relations or strain them? I assume it’s a mixed bag, but I would love to hear more details.
Those questions of race and economy are in store for upcoming installments. For the moment, let’s turn to the second letter, from a reader in New York. He said he had read some but not all of our Mississippi reports, and also has read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s justifiably praised article on reparations:
[T]alking about the success of a few Mississippi towns in attracting industry where the average annual income is $14,000 and comparing this with the reparations article which provides a pretty severe indictment of Mississippi (not to mention Chicago, etc.) provides a hell of a contrast.
The theme that I find missing in your series is any recognition that the Southern states have been in a continuing economic war with the Northern manufacturing base for at least since the Civil Rights Act. Undermining and destroying unions has been a signature part of that strategy and it has been very successful. The great cities of the North have been hollowed out just as they were beginning to provide a haven for lower class families, not to mention the overall starvation of the middle class.
When I travel in the south among my all white family and friends who never interact with anyone more ethnic than a Catholic, I am struck by how rigidly that part of the world is regulated into two societies. Not as if this does not occur in cooler climates. In New York, however, there is no room for that.
Maybe I am missing the larger message in your series, and I know that you are averse to polemics, but I feel that glossing over the underlying original sin while applauding local civic restoration based on a depressed workforce and continuing segregation in schools and the workplace is not as helpful as you might like to be.
I try to avoid the “Oh, yeah?!” temptation to send nasty instant feedback to emails, and generally succeed. You never get in trouble for the peeved message you don’t send. In this case I wrote right back, testily.
I didn’t dwell on one point of detail I thought was completely wrong, the “never interact with anyone more ethnic” part. Having just come back in Mississippi, where I had spent a fair amount of time in the civil-rights-era late 1960s*, I was reminded of how much more cross-racial minute-by-minute exposure people are forced to have in the typical small Southern town than the typical big Northern city. Obviously this does not mean that race relations are more “equal.” My point is simply that the big-city phenomenon of seeing mainly people like yourself all day long is harder to pull off in a small mixed-race town.
Instead I wrote back to say: Okay, would you like me to begin every dispatch with a reminder of Mississippi’s troubled past? The Klan, the lynchings, Jim Crow? Don’t you think people know this? He replied:
No, I don’t think people “know” this. I think most people have a very short view of history which basically includes only those things that happened in their immediate observable universe. I also think that there are about 60 million people in the South who know this perfectly well and either deliberately ignore it, blame the victim, don’t care because “those people” are not part of their tribe or are deeply invested in perpetuating it and all of whom benefit from it directly and live with that guilt. Not to mention those who still do the work of the Secessionists.
In the contrast between these notes are many of the themes and tensions of our politics now, and many generations in the past, and probably many generations to come.
* * *
As Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article has underscored, we’re dealing in the 21st century reverberations of divisions set up 300-plus years ago, in patterns of economics, agriculture, civic organization, and of course racially based slave-holding. Yesterday Andrew Sullivan posted a fascinating map reminding us how closely the blue/gray divisions of 150 years ago match the red/blue political divisions of today. Recently I posted a map showing that the parts of America where the highest proportions of African Americans live in the 21st century are the parts where Africans were brought to work as slaves several centuries ago. A reminder, via screenshot, with darker shadings meaning higher black proportions, and the three dots being the Golden Triangle.
There are many books’ worth of possible responses to the themes in these notes—as I am reminded by reading The Hamlet and Absalom, Absalom! for the first time since college. For now, two points only. One about journalism, and one about race.
* * *
The journalistic point involves what we are looking for, in Mississippi and the other places we are visiting for this American Futures project. Is it supposed to be a “balanced” or “comprehensive” view of America? No.
Through the years we were living in China, I never once imagined that my wife or I could offer a comprehensive view of what was going on. The country is too big, dynamic, unknowable, and contradictory for any sane person to dare that.
The U.S. is more familiar and knowable, at least for me, than China. But it is no less contradictory and complex. So I don’t imagine for a second that I can offer a “balanced” view of this country of any of the places where we have spent a week or two.
But I can tell you things I didn’t know before we got there. And by both design and happenstance, more of those have been positive than negative.
- By design, because we have been looking for smaller cities or areas where turnarounds of one sort or another have been underway. Downtowns that have come back; new industries that have started up where older ones had closed; schools that prepared students for jobs, or mobility in the broadest sense; places that have retained or revived a “thick” sense of civic engagement. Finding and reporting on these places doesn’t eliminate America’s countless other problems. But does anyone not know about those countless other problems? To me, successes at the moment are more interesting, more instructive, more “news.”
- By happenstance, because every place we’ve been—including, notably, the town where I grew up—has provided some surprise we’d had no idea of before arrival. Let’s be specific about Mississippi. If you already knew that there was a big industrial boom underway in eastern Mississippi; and that a Russian company making steel and a European company making helicopters had decided this was the place to do business; and that there was a school like MSMS in the nation’s poorest state, producing students who wrote essays like this—well, you’re ahead of me. Neither my wife or I had any idea of this before our first trip a few weeks ago.
* * *
Now, the point about race, which is also the point about the Civil War and everything before and after.
Start with the nationwide comparison: Americans know, or should, that racial unfairness, starting with slavery, is the country’s original sin and its ongoing social and political axis. It was at the heart of our bloodiest war. Countless other things are going on in America, many of them not at all connected to race. But many, from the pattern of our cities to the growth of our prison-industrial complex to the nature of our schools, are still obviously related to our long racial history.
We all know that, or should. But if some Chinese or German or Israeli sociologist shows up and says: “Here I am in America, and I observe that they have racial issues …” Our natural response is: Thanks a lot for that great insight! That had never occurred to any of us. What can you tell us that’s useful or new? As outsiders sometimes do, notably in this theme with An American Dilemma.
So too with the American South. For someone like me to show up in Mississippi and begin every dispatch by saying, “Here I am in the South, and I observe that they have a history of racial injustice …” does not get anyone very far.
What we can try to do is observe the ways the schools, the industries, the churches, the institutions are evolving and operating in this environment, and their effect on the various groups living there. Which will be the point of some upcoming installments.
When not otherwise noted, any photos in our American Futures coverage are by me or my wife Deb Fallows, including the one at the top of this post.
* For the record: I happen to have spent two years of my toddlerhood in Mississippi. During the Korean War my dad was a Navy doctor, and he was posted to what was then the naval hospital in Jackson. As a teenager I worked for several months in 1968 for the Southern Courier civil-rights newspaper. It was based in Montgomery, but I spent much of my time covering voter-registration and food-stamp-rights efforts in Mississippi and Alabama.