12/24/2010 02:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can Someone Talk About Mississippi ... Please?

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour's (R) ill-timed gaffe is the somewhat typical and, some could say, contrived reaction to it. I'm not certain if the pundit class enjoys excoriating those who manage to reflect on race or whether they simply use these moments as a way to channel their own feelings on the subject. But, the rage seems redundant for the most part and it follows one of the more humorous, seemingly mathematical formulas in American politics: White (Republican) politician with Southern roots + "insensitive" remarks on race = faux outrage from assorted columnists seeking a post-racial moment. The usual suspects in mainstream commentary line up like kids waiting for their turn to throw basketball into hoop.

In the case of Barbour: what did we expect? He's a baby-boomering, Boss Hog-looking Southern politician and former Chair of a party that can't even handle the first Black Chair it has ever had. And, so we expected what, exactly? His perception of the old Mississippi is light years different from the perception of someone his same age who is Black - we know the history. Did we expect that Barbour underwent some bizarre flip of psychosis, or that he performed a self-induced lobotomy to rid himself of uncomfortable racial memories, except for grinning poor Black folks and barefoot Black kids running on dirt roads that, for a variety of reasons, made him feel all warm and fuzzy aside? It's not like the man used any forbidden epithets or racy racial language. And, so, it's like the old folks say: "so what?"

It always strikes me as odd how, in these moments, the term "racism" is thrown around to describe comments rather than actions. At most, Barbour's misstep in his recent Weekly Standard interview could be described as bigoted - but, the jury is out on "racist" until we see the data. At the very least, we can call it "insensitive" - sure, we'll give the chattering mob of bloggers, netizens and lip-poking pundits that much. But, little harm when the man is merely keeping what he knows real. That's a bit refreshing - at least he's being honest about it. At least we know what we're looking at. Barbour is giving us a chance to size his real feelings on race (no pun intended on the size comment, although "Guvnah" will need to work on that weight if he's mulling a national bid).

On real, this is the tailor-made political buzz and drama before a Presidential election. Another, newer formula emerges that has the pundits hungrily slamming their forks, knives and chopsticks for more: White Southern (Republican) politician with penchant for "insensitive" remarks + the first Black President White Southern (Republican) politician plans to run against in 2012 = inevitable doom at the polls for Southern White politician.

One could make opposing arguments or construct a counter-formula. On one hand, it's easy to assume that Barbour will lose a general election against President Barack Obama because of an inability to attract a multi-racial coalition - most Black folks (and this certainly excludes the rare few who are either 1) out of their, literally, "cotton picking" minds or 2) who worked for Barbour in some capacity over the years and fondly recall his gregarious cigar chomping). On the other hand, Barbour is a smart dude who could be testing the temperature of the demographics. The latest Census found population shifts heavily favoring the South and West, with Texas being a big winner. With the electoral map a bit more challenging for the President, Barbour could be simultaneously sending out signals to his racially suspect Republican and tea-party controlled primary electorate while looking for signs of larger racial discontent underneath the worn euphoria of a Black man in the White House.

But, there is something more important than Barbour's nostalgic reflections living in what he described as a sort of de-lynching zone of peaceful segregation called Yazoo City (funny how we're not collectively snickering at that name and asking the obvious question: who would name a town Yazoo and then raise their fam in it?). While we're latching on to Barbour's comments, what about the policies and performance of a man who expects to run for President in 2012? The real story about Barbour is that he runs a state that, in the 21st century, looks very much circa-1930 when browsing the data. The story that's missed, that pundits conveniently overlook, is Mississippi's poverty rate, especially amongst African Americans who comprise 38% of the state's population. Another interesting factoid is that Yazoo's Black population today is near 70%.

In Mississippi, 22% of residents live below the poverty level, up from 18% in 2008. For Mississippi kids, it's 32% - up from near 24% in 2009. Infant mortality for nonwhites is near 20 per 1,000 births, ranking alongside "third world" countries such as Libya and Thailand - in fact, a Black baby born in Mississippi in 2010 has an average lifespan shorter than the average American living in 1960.

While we're gawking over the man's comments, it's best to question why African Americans in his state live worse than Black people elsewhere in the United States, ranking near last in terms of health, income and education. What is he doing about that? Whites in Mississippi, interestingly enough, don't fare any better, ranking 48th on the overall state index while doing better than their Black counterparts. Now, that's bad if the White people with the worst standard of living in the United States are better off than the Black people in the same state. Those are the questions we should be asking Mr. Barbour and that's the record we should cry foul about. Otherwise, let him keep Yazoo all to himself.


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