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Doesn’t Mississippi Have More Pressing Concerns?

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Doesn’t Mississippi Have More Pressing Concerns?

Steve Sands takes pictures of the rising waters in the Mississippi River as flood waters approach their crest in Greenbelt Park in Memphis, Tennessee January 4, 2016. REUTERS/Karen Pulfer Focht

A portrait of Mississippi.

It has a lower percentage of high school graduates than almost any other state. It has an unemployment rate higher than almost any other state.

Mississippi’s fourth-graders perform more poorly than any other children in the country in math. Also in reading. Its smoking rates are among the highest in the country. Along with West Virginia, it is the fattest state in the Union. It has the highest poverty rate and the lowest life expectancy.

Small wonder 24/7 Wall Street, a content provider for Yahoo!, Time and USA Today, among others, has dubbed Mississippi the “worst state to live in.”

All of which provides a certain pungent context for what happened last week as Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law a bill legalizing discrimination against LGBT people. It is dubbed the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” which is a cynical lie. The only thing it protects is those doing the discriminating.

You want to refuse to rent to a lesbian couple? You’re covered.

You want to refuse to hire a transgendered woman? Go for it.

You want to force your gay adopted son to undergo so-called conversion therapy? No problem.

You want to kick an adulterous heterosexual out of your hardware store? Yep, the law says you can even do that.

Indeed, it says that any gay, transgendered or adulterous individual whose behavior offends the “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” of a person, for-profit business, government employee or religious organization can be refused service.

As if your sexual orientation or marital status were the business of the cashier ringing up your groceries or the barber trimming your hair.

It is worth nothing that similar laws have been propounded in other states — Georgia, Indiana, Arkansas — only to be turned back under threat of boycott by Fortune 500 companies and professional sports teams doing business there. “The worst state to live in,” was immune to that kind of pressure because it has no such teams or businesses.

You’d think that would tell them something. You’d think it would suggest to Mississippi that it has more pressing concerns than salving the hurt feelings of some putative Christian who doesn’t want to bake a cake for Lester and Steve.

But addressing those concerns would require serious thought, sustained effort, foresight, creativity and courage. It is easier just to scapegoat the gays.

So the fattest, poorest, sickest state in the Union rails against LGBT people and adulterers and never mind that if every last one of them pulled up stakes tomorrow, Mississippi would still be the fattest, poorest, sickest state in the Union.

The point is not that such bigotry would be impossible in places that are healthier or wealthier. The point is not that such places are immune to it. Rather, the point is simply this: Isn’t it interesting how reliably social division works as a distraction from things that ought to matter more?

After all, Mississippi just passed a law that 80 percent of its eighth-graders would struggle to read.

If they graduate, those young people will look for work in a state with an unemployment rate significantly higher than the national average. But if one of those kids does manage to find work at the local doughnut shop say, she will — until the law is struck down, at least — have the satisfaction of refusing service to some gay man, secure in the knowledge that the state that failed to educate her or give her a fighting chance in a complex world, now has her back.

One feels sorrier for her than for the gay man. Her life will be hemmed by the fact of living it in a state that fights the future, that teaches her to deflect and distract, not resolve and engage.

The gay man can buy doughnuts anywhere.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)


Photo: Steve Sands takes pictures of the rising waters in the Mississippi River as flood waters approach their crest in Greenbelt Park in Memphis, Tennessee January 4, 2016.   REUTERS/Karen Pulfer Focht  

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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  1. Dominick Vila April 10, 2016

    States beset by poverty, using American-standards, are more often than not places where a large percentage of the population has received a sub-standard education, and where superstition and prejudice reigns. Are their actions driven by extreme religious convictions, or are they just a cover to deflect attention from their lack of responsibility, laziness, and corrupt life style? Not surprisingly, this is one of the RED states that takes in substantially more from the Federal government than what it pays in taxes.
    The fact that laws like this pass, and are accepted and supported by a majority of the population in states like Mississippi, is not surprising. What would have been surprising is intellectual discourse exposing its discriminatory tenets and abuses of power by a pathetic majority determined to live the way their elders did two centuries ago.
    No wonder they are horrified by the Daesh. Their social goals mimic those of the ISIS zealots, minus beheading. That is, unless the next step includes a lynching here and there.

    1. Jonathan Howard April 10, 2016

      Absolutely well said word for word.

    2. charleo1 April 10, 2016

      It was revealed in polling a whopping 80% of Evangelical Christians in MS. believed Barack Obama was a Muslim born Kenyan. What the poll didn’t say was where these Evangelicals were sold this propaganda. But, coming from a Pentecostal clan, growing up in the Ozark backwoods, as I did, I have no doubt.
      Even then, long before the Christian Fundamentalists crawled into bed with the greedy Corporatists, and their mouthpieces in the GOP. Our small poor congregation made up of mostly blue collar laborers, was inundated with the idea that an over concern with economic matters, education, a nice job, or other “worldly distractions,” we might see the lost sinners pursuing in big cities, or on Television (which we weren’t supposed to watch.) Were the quickest way to, “backslide,” and stray from the straight, and narrow path that led to eternal life.
      It was the building blocks, the foundation, of the Evangelicals which comprise a full third of the GOP electorate today. This World is not their home. And, it will all end one day soon, anyway. So issues like poverty, lack of education, environmental pollution, just do not matter in their religiosity. What they see is a Nation in trouble, and decline, not because the rich are getting richer. In their World they see the rich getting richer, as proof God is blessing them. Now, the Country, they are being taught, is on the verge of collapse. Not because the GOP is stealing their State blind, but because of God’s displeasure with our deteriorating morality. It’s in the mysticism of the Bible, and our failure as a Country to follow it’s tenets of higher law, that is the root cause of their poverty. So yes, absolutely! A law upholding a person’s Right to shun, and disassociate with the Sinner, this is certainly in order! As Paul Harvey used to say, “It is not one World.”

      1. S.J. Jolly April 10, 2016

        The key to picking someone’s pocket can be said to get the victim to focus his attention elsewhere. Such as up to Heaven.

        1. Juliadomalley2 April 11, 2016

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    3. Marv Nochowitz April 10, 2016

      The Taliban rules the same way.

    4. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 10, 2016

      My feeling is that lynchings, church bombings, cross-burnings, and similar “wholesome” expressions are OK with many Mississippi residents.

  2. Bullseye April 10, 2016

    It is truly sad to see special interest groups use their power to infringe on the rights of others. The governing document of our county does not limit one’s rights based on sexual proclivity, genetics or religion. Does a Mississippi real estate agent violate the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 and not to sell a house to a gay couple? Does the kosher deli refuse service to a christian? Has everyone forgotten the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s? Religious rights do not supersede the Constitution–ever. Based on this ridiculous state law, Muslims should be allowed to practice sharia law. Except for the lack of violence I don’t see this law differing much from the doctrine of Islamic terrorists, who also hide behind a god as an excuse to do evil.

    1. charleo1 April 10, 2016

      Exactly. Where would it be written that within the borders of the United States, all are subject to abide by the Constitution…except those persons who may hold religious beliefs, or other strong personal aversions against doing so?

    2. Otto T. Goat April 10, 2016

      The Mississippi law does not infringe anyone’s rights.

    3. Elliot J. Stamler April 17, 2016

      Excuse me Bullseye but the owner of a kosher deli would be delighted to serve a Christian. There is nothing about the Kosher (kashruth) laws prohibiting Christians or anyone else from eating kosher food. Moreover once anyone got a bite of a good kosher pastrami or smoked tongue sandwich they’d be hooked on kosher delis for life.

  3. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 10, 2016

    Ever since childhood in Jackson, I realized instinctively that something was wrong in Mississippi but I just couldn’t put my finger on it or put it into words. After leaving the state, reading, attending college, and interactions with people from other parts of the world the mist slowly dissipated and the horrors of Mississippi’s sordid past came into focus.

    Those ghosts and satanic influences that deadened the soul of Mississippi still haunt the governor’s mansion, and its legislative and judicial branches.

    And now, this new legislation only confirms that the state in still in the grips of bigoted law-makers. The Jim Crow laws were all too evident while growing up there, the worship of the Confederacy stood alongside the purported worship of God, a sure sign of idolatry then and now, and a mean-spirited attitude(a natural corollary of such decadent attitudes of the status quo) was ever-present from the 18th century up to the present.

    Mississippi is a beautiful state, but is still tarnished with the stain of the blood of Emmet Till, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, of the falsely imprisoned souls locked up on trivial charges in the desolation called Parchman Prison. The latter group were locked up mainly for being black yet Christian, forced to work the fields as “rented” slave laborers long after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and who subsequently died in prison while forced to work simply for such offenses as stealing chickens to feed their families or for being drunk on Friday night. These are some of the ghosts that still haunt Miss.’s politicians and their supporters.

    Only one force, an External One, can wipe this stain from Mississippi, and it’s Mouthpiece for this Day and Age penned these words, and volumes of others:

    “O SON OF SPIRIT! My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting.”

    The vast majority of Mississippians, and many others, still remain heedless and ignorant of this counsel.

    1. charleo1 April 10, 2016

      A beautiful piece of writing I enjoyed reading immensely! Well done!

      1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 10, 2016

        Thank you. It’s people like you who give me the added impetus to express myself.
        Have a great day, and watch out for falling debris from the “nutty” clouds passing overhead.

    2. marriea April 10, 2016

      And it’s because of that ignorance that Mississippi is still where it was when I left the state over forty-five years ago.
      Although to be fair, we had teachers at that time who were bound and determine to make sure you will ‘have learned something when you leave my classroom’.
      Had some at the college I went to also who wouldn’t just pass a student who hadn’t achieved the right to pass a course.
      It was the heights of the Civil Rights Movement and our instuctors used to say I fought and studied hard to get here, so you are going to also. They insisted on respect from the students and made us pay by belt if necessary. And of course during those times, you didn’t dare run home and tell ones parents as you’d get more of the same as well as being grounded.
      But those days are long gone, across the entire nation really.

      However Mississippi holds on to it’s ignorance with pride.

      1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 10, 2016

        So, you know all to well of what I’m speaking about. I’m glad to have been born and raised in Jackson, despite Jim Crow staring me in the face at every turn. My mom and grandma suffered the slings and arrows of Jim Crow on a daily basis as well. Even the cemeteries and churches were segregated— I thought that was odd from the 1st grade onward.

        But, if I had a choice to start over again I would choose Mississippi and use the racism with more skill to better myself.

        The experience enriched me in a mysterious way and I thank Baha’u’llah for leading my dad and me to an unusual group of people in Jackson called Baha’is who met in a rented room in the 60’s as a multiracial group not too far from the old down town area, despite the strictures against mixed gatherings.

        There was a community of white families down the street, but the building was never damaged ,nor were the small group of intrepid blacks, including my dad, and whites who gathered there monthly harassed or threatened. It was as though some strange force protected these people from the violence of Jim Crow and other visible forms of hate and rancor; attitudes which ill-beseem “Christians”.

        I was impressed by this group of people and am eternally grateful for them to stood up in public in a quiet and dignified manner in support of the theme of “The Oneness of Humankind”, despite the rantings of governor Ross Barnett and later governor Paul Johnson. The “ghosts” of Theodore Bilbo and others were thwarted or held at bay in any attempts to stifle that small enlightened group of Baha’is.

        Fare thee well, wherever you are.

      2. Joan April 10, 2016

        I am concerned that your remarks will be construed to others as though you believe that the lack of corporal punishment in the schools and homes is to be blamed for the state of Mississippi’s poor education, economic stagnation, and cultural backwardness. That is surely not what you meant.

        1. marriea April 11, 2016

          No, that is not what I meant.
          It was just a reflexion on how things were 40/50 years ago.
          Times change. Methods change.
          Have these changes been for the better. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
          In my day, it worked.
          Now a days a parent would be thrown in jail, and a teacher charged with assault & battery and fired.
          And this is not just Mississippi but all over this country.
          Mississippi is just seemingly proud of it’s economic stagnation and political backwardness.

  4. TZToronto April 10, 2016

    Alabama just changed its state motto to “At least we’re not Mississippi.”

    1. Marv Nochowitz April 10, 2016

      Hey no fair. That has been South Carolina’s state motto for years and rears.

      1. TZToronto April 10, 2016

        Seems to be a trend.

  5. CrankyToo April 10, 2016

    This must be the place where Man created god in his own image…

    1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 10, 2016

      An intriguing and astute observation.

      1. CrankyToo April 10, 2016

        I knew YOU’D see it.

  6. 1standlastword April 10, 2016

    LGBTQ discrimination legalized is the only way Mississippians can feel good about their dismal conditions as stated so well by the author. When you’re as low as low can go you need to get somebody to stand on to be lower than you. Now, those hillbillies can stand on the law and look down on LGBTQ people. Makes sense to me

  7. Otto T. Goat April 10, 2016

    Mississippi has a lot of blacks.

    1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 10, 2016

      Thank you for that brilliant “Pee Wee Herman”-like observation, Sherlock.

      By the way, do you have a point in such a weighty pronouncement?

      1. yabbed April 10, 2016

        The point is his racism.

  8. yabbed April 10, 2016

    I don’t see the reasoning. If MS is so poor, why are they inviting an expensive legal defense through the federal courts on this issue? Don’t they have other more worthy things in their state to fund?

    1. A. D. Reed April 10, 2016

      “Reasoning” and “Mississippi” in the same sentence, yabbed, are a linguistic paradox. Like planting thistles in a vegetable garden or serving filet mignon with a side of Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese.

    2. FireBaron April 11, 2016

      Because they believe that the great Lord, Jehovah himself, will come down from on high and defend this case in court! They are willing to further bankrupt the state in bringing this fight all the way to the Supreme Court! And considering that the 5 Justices who supported Obergefell are still there, it’s likelihood of succeeding has gone from Slim to None.

    3. Elliot J. Stamler April 17, 2016

      Read my directly relevant comment elsewhere in this column.

  9. greenlantern1 April 10, 2016

    Margaret Hoover, a relative of Herbert Hoover, directed the Hoover Foundation.
    She is also for gay marriage.
    Expect a Republican to denounce that foundation?

    1. FireBaron April 11, 2016

      Oh, I am sure someone will get around to calling her a RINO. Remember, if you are not 100% in favor of every position taken by the most conservative of the Conservatives, you are officially a RINO.

  10. Irishgrammy April 10, 2016

    Concise and perfectly stated Mr. Pitts! It is apparent to me after much thought and watching what has happened for decades in the South with minor exceptions, that it is to the benefit of the power brokers/politicians in these states to keep their population ignorant, desperate and hopeless, as they consistently place blame on the “others” (Blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays any and all they can scapegoat) along with attacking the Federal government! They can only sell that garbage to the truly ignorant and uneducated! These cowardly politicians deflect the real blame for the ills of Mississippi’s dismal condition from themselves to the “social issues” along with the inherent racism ingrained in the Southern mind set, and the Republican Party in particular have grasped onto these tactics of division and have been using for some time now to divide, and stir up anger and derision. In fact those social issues have nothing at all to do with ones quality of life, employment, education or lack thereof. When a political party’s main battle cry is government is “bad”, or “evil” or “incompetent” you can be sure that party will do what ever is necessary to make those attacks become reality. I guess that is one way for these cretins to hold on to power, but my God what a waste of life and possibilities. Maybe one day the South will wake up, to just how badly they have been played…..

  11. Independent1 April 10, 2016

    When you’re thinking about GOP governance a red states, it’s not just Mississippi that’s a miserable state to live in. See this:

    The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which interviewed more than 176,000 people from all 50 states last year, measures the physical and emotional health of Americans across the country.

    Nine out of 10 ‘most miserable’ states are red, surprising no one

    So take a gander at the states with the most miserable people:

    1. West Virginia 2. Kentucky 3. Mississippi 4. Alabama 5. Ohio 6. Arkansas 7. Tennessee 8. Missouri 9. Oklahoma 10. Louisiana

    In any case, for those keeping score at home, that’s nine red states and just one blue state. And that’s not a coincidence. Also not a coincidence: Those are southern states. In fact, regionalism seems to correlate strongly on this list. I took the states ranked 1-25 on the list and colored them green, while those in the lower half red. This is what it looks like: Mississippi is thrilled that it didn’t top this list. West Virginia topped it by just being absolutely despondent about their future. And really, can’t say I blame them when water in Mexico is safer than the stuff coming out of their own tap.


  12. Ralph April 11, 2016

    The same people who want gov’t to keep its nose out of their business buying guns in a parking lot from the trunk of a car demand to see your birth certificate before you pee.

  13. Henry Ridgeway April 11, 2016

    “The gay man can buy donuts anywhere.” But he probably shouldn’t. But man I loves me some curlers.

  14. Henry Ridgeway April 11, 2016

    Crullers, actually.

  15. Elliot J. Stamler April 17, 2016

    No, Mississippi does not have more important things to worry about. To a majority of white Mississippians nothing is more important than preserving their narrow-minded, evangelical, Southern Baptist-Assemblies Of God, sexual prudery, governmental interference in private lives on the grounds of “traditional values” and similar things. To them that (along with preserving de facto white supremacy) is more important than education, health or anything else. This is the way they’ve always been—and always will be. They are still the kind of people who would vote for a James Eastland or a James Vardaman if they could. Just examine the Republican fascist who almost unseated Sen. Cochran two years back, State Sen. Chris McDaniel. Look at what he’s up to nowadays.
    The ultra-conservative Baptist/Evangelical white Republicans of Mississippi (formerly the Dixiecrats) see things through their own perspective…they are not rational and they are certainly profoundly un-American…and in Mississippi, they’re the majority.


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