If you ever find yourself driving through the great plains of the Southeast United States, I do not think it will be extremely difficult to recognize how American exceptionalism was birthed. As the sun’s light seemed to add an extra shine to the cotton fields, I like the white founders of America before me realized how much opportunity there was to seize. Those white founders realized their opportunity through the induction of slavery and from that point on the repercussions have never been fully addressed.
I realized the opportunity for the businesses that could be built to stimulate the local economy, the recreational youth centers that could cultivate a more holistic learning experience for children, or the state of the art hospitals the North takes for granted that could challenge the South’s problems of obesity and dentistry. All of these visions and understandings are open for all to see at the Quitman County Elementary School in Mississippi where I was fortunate enough to spend a week of service thanks to Boston College’s Mississippi Delta Volunteer Corps.
How cliche would it be for me to say the service trip opened my eyes to certain inequities black folks face in the deep south? No, I will not spend this chance to pinpoint step by step the historical progression of racial inequality in America. Rather, this story will be a small attempt to explain how the Mississippi Delta made the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti, look more economically developed and civilized in my eyes. A harsh statement, but maybe a necessary forceful confrontation of the disregard our government and supposedly exceptional democracy has for this aforementioned state.
Without further adieu let's briefly discuss Mississippi. According to the United States' 2014 Health Rankings, Mississippi placed 50th. It would not be so farfetched to believe in 2016 that it ranked around the same area. The ranking had 27 measures and Mississippi was in the bottom 5 states in 16 of the 27 measures. This means high prevalence of obesity, physical inactivity, diabetes, children in poverty, low birthweight infants, and low high school graduation rate. In addition, there is limited availability of primary care physicians and dentists, and high incidences of infectious disease. How can the United States sit well with this knowledge?
It is easy to offhandedly blame some if not all the harsh realities of Mississippi on poor teaching or lack of businesses in the area. However, the problem is more apparent when we analyze our policy makers’ and politicians’ decisions. There has never been an honest attempt to deal with the repercussions of slavery that developed into Jim Crow, segregation, and mass incarceration. Moreover, the historical timeline of racial injustices has been attached with an accompanying timeline of passed policy and legislation that has actively worked to keep racial justice and equality for blacks unattainable. In Mississippi this is no different.
The delta region of Mississippi is one of the poorest regions of one of the poorest states in the U.S. What should concern us is not so much the facts and figures, but rather the decisions made by policy makers in Mississippi. Former Governor of Mississippi Haley Barbour heralded for cutting the state’s budget deficit in half through the implementation of Operation Streamline. He also worked to reduce spending on social services like Medicaid. How can a governor who is supposed to be elected on the standing principle that he or she will serve the people’s best interest lead a state that has a 35.5% adult obesity rate, the 3rd highest in the country, and believe it is in their state’s best interest to cut down on Medicaid?
An article in the Huffington Post addressing education in the state of Mississippi broke down the difference between can’t and won’t when it comes to policy making. The article stated “‘Can’t’ suggests we lack the ability to be better. ‘Won’t’ means we lack the will to improve.” Former governor Haley Barbour and current governor Phil Bryant are well-known politicians and drivers of policy but it would not be out of line to say they, along with s other policy makers in Mississippi, have surely adopted the ‘won’t’ attitude.
The fact that Initiative 42 had to be formed and voted on in order to keep the Mississippi Legislature on task for fully funding its state’s educational program to reach its goal of providing every child in the state a right to a free and adequate public education is a shame. “The state Legislature passed a law in 1997 that promised us that each public school district in Mississippi would receive enough financial support to adequately fund every K-12 grade.” In approximately 20 years the legislature has only fully funded public schools twice.
Mississippi is not a lost cause, and many states as do countries face some of the same concerns. Real solutions are attainable. The citizens of Mississippi must know and believe this. The politicians they elect however, need to change their ‘won’t’ attitude. And the best way to do that is to ensure that the same accountability they task their hired teachers who have to work with in unimaginable circumstances is asked of them as well. If they fear the loss of their job next election they will be more likely to work for the people. Besides, is that not how our government and democracy is supposed to work?
Voting and remembering to vote based on a conscience and well-informed opinion is not only the simplest way but also the most effective way to turn Mississippi around. It also serves as a vital testament that black people and all those oppressed are a self-determined people and no policy maker or politician can take that away from us, especially if we use all the tools and rights we have access to.
From where did I derive this desire or passion to share the struggles of the state of Mississippi in hopes of highlighting the constant neglect of the state from its own country and public servicemen? The answer is from a conversation I had with one of the third graders I was lucky enough to encounter while on my service trip to Quitman County Elementary School in Mississippi. Her name was Azaliah and on my last day of service she asked me to stay. I then realized from what her teacher shared with me about her home life that I, in one week, had become some form of stability for her.
As I told Azaliah I had to go, I quickly envisioned her next few years and was sickened by the obstacles and oppressive structures in her way. It felt like a ton of bricks falling from the sky, an impact that obligated me to write this article.
I do not mean to discredit many of the wonderful teachers and amazing people that I and the group I went down with had a chance to learn from and work with that care about these children's and their state's well-being. But as I can escape to the tranquility and opportunity of Boston College this article serves as my attempt to hopefully get across to an audience that even in the land of opportunity, equality, and justice, past oppressive racial systems, corrupt politics, and selfishness allows for an eight-year-girl to face the world almost alone. Azaliah will always be in my heart and is the fuel in my fight to make America live up to the exceptionalism it claims to own.
Ronald Claude, MCAS '16