It is a common lament among Mississippians that the state’s finest qualities can never be summed up and ranked, while its worst afflictions are routinely quantified and published in national tables. As a result, the rest of the country is more likely to associate Mississippi with its faults than its virtues.
The natural response when confronted with our negatives is to talk about our positives. However, Mississippians’ desire to win acceptance in the eyes of the nation also leads us to suppress any sentiment that does not fit the positive narrative — often including the critical discussions necessary to solve Mississippi’s endemic problems.
Last week, Mississippi once again secured the bottom spot in a widely-circulated national ranking. After compiling various statistics on income, health, and education, Politico Magazine labeled Mississippi America’s “worst state” — or for the glass-half-full crowd, 51st best, behind every other state and the District of Columbia. The rankings were intended to echo a similar list published in 1931 by legendary editors H. L. Mencken and Charles Angoff of the American Mercury. (Note: It is the most Pyrrhic of victories to mention that Mississippi ranked as high as 49th on that list, before Alaska and Hawaii received statehood.)
The Politico article flippantly suggests that similarities to the 1931 rankings may imply the intervening economic and social change has been overstated: “Given that eight of the lowest-ranking states on our list overlap with the bottom 10 on his, maybe less has changed in the past 83 years than you’d think.”
To the contrary: If we can learn anything from the stasis in our relative ranking, it is just how far behind the rest of the country Mississippi started. Mississippi has changed in absolute terms as much as any state in America.
In 1931 Mississippi was a segregated, agrarian backwater, unrecognizable to its increasingly multicultural and industrial contemporaries as well as Mississippi of the 21st century. Mississippi’s problems in 1931 were categorically different than those of most of the country. While the Politico rankings show that Mississippi’s problems still exist on a larger scale and scope than other states’, they at least bear a common DNA.
But instead of focusing on the work that remains, Mississippians are reeling from the stigma of once again being called “the worst” by a national publication.
Nobody from Mississippi needs to be told that outside perception hasn’t kept pace with the state’s progress. We’ve always expected condescending remarks from Californians and New Yorkers, but just as often, the insults come from Tennesseans, Alabamians, and others who know us best. “Thank God for Mississippi,” our neighbors say, because Mississippi consistently spares them the ignominy of finishing last.
The soft bigotry that accompanies Mississippi’s reputation is deeply rooted in our collective psyche. Instead of confronting our challenges head-on, Mississippians more often try to divert attention to our virtues — the ones we feel deserve more recognition from the rest of the country. I call this our Positive Mississippi reflex, in reference to the slogan that former Gov. Kirk Fordice affixed to our highway signs: “Only Positive Mississippi Spoken Here.”
Here’s how I described Positive Mississippi in a previous article:
“Only Positive Mississippi Spoken Here” was Fordice’s way of saying that Mississippi had aired its dirty drawers long enough. As long as others fixated on Mississippi’s negatives, Mississippians had every right to emphasize their positives. In practice, Positive Mississippi simply meant changing the subject.
Mississippi may have illiteracy, but Positive Mississippi has a pantheon of great writers. Mississippi may have obesity, but Positive Mississippi has scores of Hall-of-Fame plaques in Canton and Cooperstown. Mississippi may have poverty and prejudice, but Positive Mississippi has countless legendary musicians who learned to play in humble sharecropper shacks…
References to our problems usually only come in hopes of disclaiming ownership: our problems are the same as everyone else’s, we just get blamed for them more.
Yesterday, Politico published a rebuttal to its rankings from Gov. Phil Bryant (“It’s Time to End the Mississippi Bashing”) that epitomized the Positive Mississippi attitude:
Politico Magazine’s recent article “The States of Our Union … Are Not All Strong” has Mississippi ranked as 51—the “worst” among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. As governor of Mississippi, I disagree. The author herself admits that the method behind assigning these rankings was neither scientific nor comprehensive, so I’ll provide the rest of the story, if you will, and reveal the truth about this great state.
There is no other state in the nation quite like Mississippi. We are, after all, a crossroads: There is no other place with such a rich, diverse tradition of art, music, literature and culture, and no other place that so routinely defies expectations.
Now, every state has room to improve, and Mississippi is working hard to overcome some of its obstacles.
Predictably, the Governor changed the subject from Mississippi’s quantitative deficiencies to our qualitative virtues. When addressing Mississippi’s problems, he did so in a general manner that minimized their scale and implicated other states. To be fair, the Governor did make reference to a two-year drop in teen pregnancy and the passage of his education reforms last year, but he sidestepped specific discussion of the issues that led to Mississippi’s basement ranking in the first place.
[alert type=”info”]According to Politico, Mississippi ranks 51st in per capita wealth, 45th in unemployment, 51st in poverty, 49th in high school graduation, 51st in life expectancy, 50th in infant mortality, 49th in obesity, 48th in self-reported wellbeing, 50th in math and reading scores, 48th in income inequality, and 51st in STEM jobs.[/alert]
Few who saw Mississippi’s statistics would be persuaded by Bryant’s points of positivity. The Governor spent the remainder of his op-ed celebrating pro-business rankings from obscure magazines, name-dropping multinational corporations with branch plants in Mississippi, and attempting to quantify the state’s positive qualities by citing publications that gave Mississippi high ratings for charity and friendliness (an ironic rebuttal to rankings that he described as “neither scientific nor comprehensive.”)
I’m willing to give the Governor some leeway for boosterism, but too often Mississippians avoid speaking honestly and substantively about our problems in order to “sell the state.” We feel that the mere mention our problems reinforces negative stereotypes about us. The truth is that ignoring our entrenched challenges only makes them more intractable.
It’s true that the media and others around the country use Mississippi unfairly as an avatar for poverty, ignorance, and bigotry, and we certainly deserve the chance to present a more accurate picture of the qualities that we cherish. But ultimately all of us who love Mississippi must resolve to speak honestly about the state’s economic and social problems, because Mississippi’s image will never improve until we catch up on those things that can be summed up and ranked.