Wednesday, 11 December 2002

Mississippians, persecution complexes, and Trent Lott

Today was haircut day for me; I trekked down to Parks Barber Shop, just off the Oxford Square, for my bimonthly trim. Business wasn't all that brisk, but there was already someone in the chair (and Larry was the only one working this morning), so I took a seat and started reading my copy of this week's Economist. Not unsurprisingly, Larry and his patron started talking about the Lott situation; Larry stuck up for good old Trent, saying that “he hadn't said anything racist” and that he was probably right, that we would have been better off had Thurmond won, while the patron pointed out that even if Trent had gotten a bit carried away at the celebration (and nothing more), he'd still made Mississippi look bad.

Far be it from me to extrapolate too much from idle conversation in a barber shop. But there are certainly lots of people down here who'd agree with Larry's sentiment; that Trent Lott didn't say anything “racist”. And, on the surface, if you'd beamed down from Neptune, without any knowledge of what Strom Thurmond stood for in 1948, I suppose that's plausible, even if a bit disingenuous. But unless you're ignorant of the context, it's hard to read Lott's comments as anything but an endorsement of White Rule Forever.

But there is a larger issue here, one that will remain long after the Lottroversy is over: a lot of white Mississippians view the world through a prism of persecution, and believe they'll never get a fair shake from the Yankee victors, no matter what they do. “We got rid of segregation, let blacks vote, abolished the Sovereignty Commission,” they say, “but still those outsiders are on us about the flag, Confederate statues, and what we call our football teams. Appease 'em on that, and who knows what will be next.” In short, it's us against them. And Trent Lott was immersed in that culture from day one of his life, which is why he won't quit (I can imagine him now: “You'll have to pry the Senate calendar out of my cold, dead fingers.”); if he did, it'd be yet another surrender to the Yankees and their damned political correctness. Bottom line: if the Republicans want to get rid of Trent, they're gonna have to do it the ugly way.

That isn't to say there isn't some kernel of truth buried in that view of persecution; my experience with a lot of Northerners suggests that Mississippi is still viewed as nothing short of Deliverance writ large with a healthy dollop of Sling Blade on the side, where uppity blacks are still lynched on a daily basis in the Oxford Square and an interracial couple should expect to be stoned to death by mobs of anti-miscegenationists. The reality of modern Mississippi is that whites and blacks get along pretty well, for the most part, whether promoting economic development in the Delta or getting the business of the state done in Jackson. In some ways, that makes Lott's comments hurt worse, because most Mississippians, if they sat down and actually thought about it, would agree that our state is much better off now than it was during the days of Jim Crow.

Maybe if Trent Lott was from Ohio or Nebraska, instead of Mississippi, he might have gotten an easier ride, absent those stereotypes. Not that he would have deserved one.

Incidentally, this is probably the same reason Bill Clinton refused to quit during l'affaire Lewinsky; the white Southerner persecution complex isn't exclusive to Mississippians.

More Lott items on the front page.