Voting Rights and You

Sections of the Voting Act were weakened over the summer because of decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court. The state of Texas is currently in a battle with the Dept. of Justice over their new voter identification law. These things are sewn together by remnants of the U.S. Civil War.

Immediately after the war ended in 1865, white males who fought against the Union lost their right to vote. At the same time, black men gained the right to vote. All over the former Confederacy, black men were elected to governorships and the Senate. But even a well-earned imbalance is still an imbalance. As the period known as Reconstruction ended, rich white men made compromises that saw them regain their voting rights. Like before, an imbalance was fought with another imbalance: There were suddenly new requirements to vote–literacy tests, poll taxes–not to mention general efforts to physically keep them away from the voting booth by organizations like the Klu Klux Klan.

Most of these things were cleared up legally in the 1960s by the Voting Rights Act. Since the South was seen as the most egregious violator, special rules were enacted. The states of the former Confederacy (and a couple out West) had to submit their redistricting plans to federal officials for approval before they could take effect to make sure black voters weren’t being gerrymandered into nothingness. As recently as the last few years, then Mississippi governor Haley Barbour said the process was not a problem, and he had no intention of joining with some of the other states to challenge the provision in court.

Every 10 years, using the results of the decennial census are used to remap the voting districts. That state governments have used this to increase the power of their political party in the state should come as no surprise. It’s been going on since the term “gerrymandering” was coined in 1812. Now the demographics of the United States are changing unlike any period in the country’s history. This has some white males afraid, so in Texas, a group found ways to minimize the Hispanic voters so they’d be less of an issue for members of their political party for the next decade. The U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, took issue with this and has started legal proceedings to stop it.

It all seems on the up and up until you consider Mississippi where the former governor had no problem with the federal oversight provisions. Mississippi has the lowest percentage of white citizens of any state at 59.9%. Black people are the largest minority and make up 37.3% of the state’s population. Mississippi has four members of the House of Representatives. One of those, Congressman Bennie Thompson, has a district that runs the length of the state that touches the Mississippi River and juts in to take a county or two inward in places if those counties have large percentages of black voters. It’s gerrymander-ific! It also means that the nearly 40% black population is lumped so they effect only 25% of our representation in the House.

How, you ask, can it be so if the federal government approves the districting plans? There are two possible answers: First, they don’t care; second, they like it that way. Government never likes change. Mississippi is the state closest to the tipping point for a non-white majority. The inequalities of the past generally keep Mississippi at the bottom of national rankings–that is, historically worse educational opportunities for a growing, soon-to-be majority black population mean that a line had to be drawn to protect white privilege for as long as possible. Who but white men from Ole Miss can save the black population from themselves?

To bring this back to the main thesis of this article, if you think about what the federal government has no problem (40% of the population in one superdistrict), you can only imagine what’s laying in wait in Texas, a state where everything is bigger–especially fear of minorities.

I write this because I haven’t seen this point raised in any news story or editorial I have read about the situation.

Minority Report

I was just reading an article about the percentages of passport holders in each state. It’s no surprise that Mississippi is at the bottom of that list. They make a lot of assumptions in the article measuring income, creativity, etc. in explaining why this is.

I wondered, though, how cultural factors contributed to this in Mississippi. That is to say, if California has a high Chicano population, does it stand to reason that those people would visit Mexico at some point? While I don’t have the resources to do a study on this at present, based on anecdotal evidence, I’d say the answer is “yes.”

Mississippi’s population is more than a third people of African descent (just over 34%, the highest percentage in any state). Due to the nature of how most of them came to America, aren’t they prohibited from the behavior in which a portion of California’s Chicanos participate? Behavior that requires a passport…

I Made the Paper

My piece on Peace Corps in Mississippi was published by the Clarion Ledger.

David Leavitt D’Agostino replied to my post here. The gist of his comments:

…we have seen the numbers increase: there are
currently 33 Volunteers serving, which represents a 65% increase
compared to 2009. Also, over the past 18 months we have increased
our recruitment efforts due to budget increases. Our recruiters in
Atlanta have particpated in 10 career fairs, 18 GlobeTalks (general
information meetings), 30 class talks including 8 at USM, and 15
tabling events. We currently have a recruiter at Southern Miss this
week.”

But what about the other universities in the state? Why is it that even though I have been registered to go and help with recruiting events, before today I wasn’t contacted about any? Does that go for the rest of the (few) RPCVs in Mississippi?

I volunteered to ride to Hattiesburg this week to help. Let’s see if anyone contacts me.

How Special Am I? One in 448.

I’m from Mississippi. Sometimes that’s not the most exciting or popular fact. Some things are easier there, though.

In high school, I was valedictorian. It’s something of which I am proud. The thing that made it easier is that there were only 20 people in my graduating class.

With Peace Corps 50th anniversary underway, statistics have been released showing how many volunteers have served from each state. Mississippi is dead last with 448. Mississippi’s southeastern neighbors all average around 1,000. Smaller states like Vermont and New Hampshire have sent about three times more volunteers. Delaware has sent 30 more than Mississippi with a much smaller population. Puerto Rico has sent 373 volunteers. Here’s a list of Peace Corps volunteer home states.

Why? First, being a poorer state, Mississippi has fewer people with the ability to decide to spend two years helping when they feel their families need them close by to help make ends meet. Second, Mississippi has a good bit higher minority population than the national average. Minorities serve a fraction as much as other groups.

Neither of the prior two things mean people wouldn’t serve given the chance. A lot of young people in Mississippi are looking for a chance to get out for a little while and see what else is happening in the world. They just have to be given a chance.

In that regard, Mississippi is at the border of Peace Corps recruiting districts. While part of the Atlanta office, those people have to drive two states to get to Mississippi. The Dallas office is on the other side. It’s only one state away, but it’s about equidistant from the state as Atlanta. I haven’t looked at any mileage tables, but I think the Chicago office is not significantly farther away.

Combine that with the fact that in four years of undergraduate study, I never saw nor heard of Peace Corps. The recruiters just don’t come. Compare that with six months of graduate work in Ohio where a recruiter has already come twice. Why? Probably they think Mississippi is just too far to drive.

A fun anecdote. In 2007 when I joined the Peace Corps, I was living in Los Angeles and was recruited out of their local office. I let one of my favorite former professors know. He was sharing the news with his colleagues at the college. He told me one of them asked, “Peace Corps? Does that even still exist?”

Peace Corps, you are doing a disservice to the good people of Mississippi. With your budget level at an all time high, you have the funds to drive over from Atlanta or Dallas. We didn’t force you to mark us as the fringe.

I’m special. I am one of 448 Mississippians who took up the Peace Corps’ challenge. On behalf of my neighbors who have never been given the opportunity to serve, I suggest you step up and give them a chance.