By the time you read this, the 2013 mayoral election will be part of our city's history. Most white voters of every political persuasion united against Chokwe Lumumba, the civil-rights attorney who worked for so many years to liberate the Scott Sisters, because--near as I can tell--they think he seems too angry, and that makes them angry.
Ask one of these voters about the presumptive mayor-elect now, and you might get an earful about how our city is becoming "little Detroit," or "Lumumbaland" or something less printable. And it's not just the usual conservative blame-Jackson crowd who are saying this stuff--one of the most solid white progressives I've ever met, someone active in the Occupy protests, posted a status yesterday suggesting that Lumumba's staff might wear black gloves and give him a Nazi salute.
That kind of reaction can't be about Chokwe Lumumba's race, because Jackson has been electing black mayors since 1997. And it's not about Chokwe Lumumba's ideology, because most white voters don't know much, if anything about it. It's about the fact that he has dedicated his entire adult life to talking about race directly, fighting racism directly (using nonviolent, albeit occasionally impolite, means), and then won a city election without having to gain the approval of white voters first.
Meanwhile, over in the governor's mansion, Phil Bryant is less than halfway through his first term. He has aligned himself with "state's rights" groups that oppose federal civil-rights policy. He's issued a legislative directive making "any unconstitutional order by the President illegal to enforce in Mississippi by state or local law enforcement," which amounts to a new version of Ross Barnett's nullification and interposition order, and he described section 5 of the Voting Rights Act as former President Lyndon Johnson's revenge against the South. Bryant regularly celebrates the state's Confederate "heritage," and he makes jokes about moving the state capitol to majority-white Rankin County. Worse, Bryant uses the power of his office to attack both Medicaid and public education--government programs that conservative talk radio hosts present (incorrectly) as being
beneficial primarily to black Mississippians.
Many consider Phil Bryant a fairly mainstream politician--he is even, in many white circles, a symbol of unity. If you were to ask an average white conservative Jacksonian what they'd hoped the next mayor would be like, I think it's a safe guess that they'd tell you they wanted somebody who can "unite" the city in the same way the governor "unites" the state.
Of course, the Bryant brand of conservative's definition of "unity" generally does not include any people of color. So you could conclude that when white progressives find "unity" with those white conservatives, it's generally at someone else's expense. And when they join with white conservatives in denouncing an otherwise popular candidate as "divisive," that's generally at someone else's expense, too.
It's well past time to move past the segregated Mississippi political culture that says it's noble to put your ideology and shared values aside and unite on the basis of race, but it's suspicious to put your racial identity aside and unite on the basis of ideology and shared values. And if you identify as a white progressive, it's well past time to act like it--by rejecting the divisive politics of old-Dixie demagogues like Phil Bryant, and at least respectfully tolerating the comparatively inclusive politics of civil-rights activists like Chokwe Lumumba. Stop doing what you think a white person ought to do, and start doing what you think a progressive ought to do. Vote like a progressive, and choose candidates who reflect your core values, not your cultural biases.
And be suspicious of any candidate who promises he can "unite" you with people who do not share your policy goals. Our democratic process gives us real, life-saving work to do--work that some of your friends and family members won't be able to support. Keep loving your friends and family members--because that's a unity that no politician gives you--but keep doing the work, too. And don't let anybody convince you that you have to choose one or the other.
Tom Head, Ph.D., has written or co-written 24 nonfiction books, is a civil liberties writer for About.com and is a grassroots progressive activist.