03 Aug Retiring the Flag a Good First Step
Mississippi’s history is steeped in state-supported violence and institutional racism that permeate every economic, educational, health, social, political, religious, and economic issue, decision, and debate within its borders. For many of its citizens, including the near 20% living in poverty, the “hospitality state” nickname is misplaced. One ever-present symbol of this duality was the state flag bearing the Confederate battle emblem. However, after pressure from an overwhelming number of internal and external stakeholders, state leaders seized the opportunity to remove the symbol of divisiveness. On June 29, the legislature rendered an historic vote to remove the controversial flag often aligned with white supremacy. Many Mississippians, including myself, gained new hope that real change might be possible in our state.
But while retiring the flag is a cause for celebration and an important step towards unifying our state, it is just a first step. The symbolic change to our state flag is a hollow gesture if it is not followed by actions that address laws and policies that negatively impact the lives of many Mississippians, especially African American, Latinx, and poor communities.
With a median income of $23,121, Mississippi continues to rank very poorly in measures of health care, education, and economic opportunity. COVID-19 has further exposed the racial, health, and economic disparities impacting Mississippians. Here are several areas that merited the immediate attention of Mississippi’s lawmakers before the pandemic hit. Now, with COVID-19 further depressing our already-depressed state, it’s important that they finally start to act.
Healthcare – Legislators must prioritize the many thousands of Mississippians struggling with health and financial insecurity by expanding Medicaid and strengthening our health care system. Approximately 40% of Mississippians between the ages of 19 and 64 are uninsured. They deserve a fighting chance against the structural inequities that make them particularly vulnerable to the pandemic.
Education – The lack of broadband access in poor and rural communities is disadvantaging Mississippi’s children and ill-equipping Mississippi for the future. Economically depressed communities must have the resources to properly educate children by providing safe learning environments, books, access to high-speed remote learning, and teachers with the necessary tools and training.
Voting rights – Easier early voting, no-excuse absentee balloting, and online voter registration are all essential to the health of our democracy, especially in times of social distancing. No citizen should be asked to go to a crowded polling station when it could be detrimental to their health and to their community.
Consumer protection – The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau recently repealed a 2017 regulation that protected Mississippians from some of the most unscrupulous acts of payday lenders, effectively placing borrowers, like the sharecroppers of old, at the mercy of shameless lenders intent on creating endless cycles of debt. In light of the CFPB’s policy reversal, the Mississippi Legislature must reform our payday, check-cashing, and auto title lending laws to stop exploitation of its citizens.
Economic opportunity – The minimum wage must be raised to allow average workers to earn a living wage and afford to provide their families with basic human needs like a safe home and nutritious food. In Mississippi, 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 4 children are food insecure. In some counties, nearly a third of residents do not have reliable access to a grocery store (for Sunflower County in the Delta it is 29%; for Hinds, home of the state capital, it is 24%). Food insecurity is a major driver of poor health, which brings us full circle.
I applaud our state’s leadership for having the courage to bring down the flag symbolizing what many believe to be the worst of human character, but that’s just the first of the many changes that need to happen to move our state forward. The next step must be to address the challenges resulting in Mississippians being the poorest, unhealthiest, least-educated, and least likely to have a fair shot at a better life for themselves and their families.
Vangela M. Wade is president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm committed to advancing racial and economic justice.