83% of whites approved November's ballot initiative, 75% of non-whites voted against...
By Ernest A. Canning on 1/13/2012, 1:48pm PT  

Guest editorial by Ernest A. Canning

I am old enough to remember not only the civil rights movement but that, amongst all the Southern Jim Crow states, Mississippi had absolutely the worst reputation. It was the state where, in 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year old African-American from Chicago was lynched, burned and so badly mutilated his own mother couldn't recognize his corpse --- all because he whistled at a white woman (we'll spare you the horrific photo, but it's available here if you'd like to see it); where, in 1963, the NAACP's Medgar Evers was gunned down outside his home; where, in 1964, three civil rights workers attempting to register voters were lynched.

I have no doubt that the 83% of MS whites who, this past November, as we now learn in a new analysis, voted in favor of a state constitutional amendment that would mandate polling place photo ID restrictions as a prerequisite to voting --- as compared to more than 75% of non-whites who voted against polling place photo ID --- would vehemently deny their vote was racially motivated. They would do so even though African-Americans are more than three times more likely to lack photo IDs than whites and even though study-after-study has exposed the lie in the GOP's baseless claims that such laws are needed to prevent "voter fraud."

But I am also relatively certain that race played a role in the inability of so many of the children and grandchildren of formerly Jim Crow Mississippi to appreciate what it is that photo ID truly seeks to accomplish...

Enlisting The Help

Kathyrn Stockett's novel, The Help, entails fiction superimposed upon personal experience and actual historical events.

There's a tendency for those too young to have experienced those events in real time --- especially those who've only seen the widely acclaimed movie version (see trailer below), which Tulane Univ. Prof. Melissa Harris Perry sharply criticized for its understatement of the horrors of Jim Crow --- to snicker at the absurdity of the campaign by Hilly Holbrook (portrayed by Bryce Dallas Howard) to have separate home toilets built for African-American maids as part of a "sanitation initiative." Many in a 21st Century audience see Jim Crow as an anachronism that has no bearing on present-day race relations.

Unfortunately, if one stops there, the real value of The Help is missed altogether.

There is a fundamental question of point of view. When it comes to class, it is difficult for someone like a Charles Koch, who was born into and enjoys a level of wealth that ordinary citizens cannot even comprehend, to himself empathize with the plight of those born into poverty. He and ordinary citizens see the world from a fundamentally different point of view.

In The Help we see this distinction throughout in the point of view of the women who hire and command the maids and from the maids themselves. The most powerful distinction occurs by comparing a remark made by Hilly Hollbrook to Skeeter Phelan (portrayed by Emma Stone) and another remark made by Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) to Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis).

"Believe it or not," Hilly tells Skeeter while holding up Skeeter's copy of Mississippi's segregation laws, "there are real racists in this town. If the wrong person caught you reading this, you'd be in serious trouble."

"We living in Hell," Minny tells Aibileen, shortly after a terrified Aibileen stumbled in the dark to Minny's house on the night of Medgar Evers' murder.

In the first remark, we see a form of denial of her own racism coming from perhaps the most racist of the women in the film. In the second, we see how fundamentally different the reality of 1963 is seen through the eyes of an African-American maid.

Mississippi whites fail to recognize James Crow Esq.

While perhaps not as stark as the difference between Charles Koch and ordinary citizens, white Americans still occupy a position of economic privilege relative to African-Americans, especially in MS.

As revealed by the Bread for the World Institute Fact Sheet [PDF], in "each of the 10 states with the highest poverty rates...the African-American poverty rate was significantly higher than the overall poverty rate." Mississippi, at 21.9%, has the highest poverty rate in the nation; yet an astounding 36% of African-Americans in the Magnolia state live in poverty.

That poverty, coupled with both the fact that the number of African-Americans without state-issued photo ID is more than three times greater than whites and expenses associated with obtaining IDs, reveal a far greater likelihood that African-Americans will be disenfranchised by polling place photo ID restriction laws.

"Jim Crow is poll taxes," NAACP Senior VP Hilary Shelton observed. With "James Crow Esquire it's having to pay for an ID."

It isn't that MS whites are incapable of discovering the lie in the GOP "voter fraud" canard. It's just that their relative position of white privilege blinds them to the racist reality behind polling place photo ID restrictions.

Fortunately, it is doubtful that MS polling place photo ID legislation will be precleared by the U.S. Department of Justice under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

* * *

The Help trailer follows...

* * *

Ernest A. Canning has been an active member of the California state bar since 1977. Mr. Canning has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science as well as a juris doctor. He is also a Vietnam vet (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968). Follow him on Twitter: @Cann4ing.