The other side of unemployment in Mississippi

By Christopher Young, 

Contributing Writer,

Do you hear the coded language, always part of the talking points of our state leaders, about unemployment? Our Governor always finds a way to slip the words “working Mississippians” into his comments and press releases. Lt. Governor Hosemann shared an opinion piece with the Daily Journal, December 24th, ending with this sentence, “We are going to end this term with the same conservatism, energy and work ethic with which we started it – all in the endless pursuit of making our state an even better place for our children and grandchildren.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the average unemployment rate in the country was 5.3% for 2021. In the Table shown there is also unemployment data including race, for 2022, provided by the Economic Policy Institute.

In 2019, Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy gave a keynote address to the Federal Reserve Symposium on Racism and the Economy. Her remarks included, “As silly as that sounds, when we consider the origins of race as a social construct, the racial disparities we observe across any number of economic outcomes should come as no surprise. Since this nation’s inception, race has been used to systematically exclude, marginalize, exploit and generate unequal economic outcomes, while also being used to justify and normalize those unequal outcomes.”

“Black workers are far more likely to be unemployed than white workers – typically twice as likely. Even at the historically low rates of unemployment reached in 2019, this was the case overall and at nearly every level of education. In practical terms, this means that black workers are not just twice as likely to be unemployed as similarly educated white workers but are often more likely to be unemployed than less-educated white workers.”

Even as unemployment rates in Mississippi have dropped, the coded language persists. It leaves one to wonder what their real motivation is. By viewing the data through the lens of race, it is likely that this is just one more mechanism by which to divide Mississippians, to trot out the old stereotype that black people are lazy and don’t want to work. However false this thinking is, and always has been, it’s music to the ears of the white Mississippians who still live in the past.

The most ironic aspect of this variety of dog whistle is that the people blowing them know full and well that this state was built on slave labor. They know in most cases it was their own ancestors – behaving as racist captors, oppressors and terrorists – that oversaw the process while reveling in their white supremacy. Remaining beholden to the mindset that black Mississippians are beneath them, and must be kept beneath them, requires both ignorance and willfulness.

Broadly, our country has moved forward to embracing higher levels of equity and fairness for all people, and away from racism and bigotry; not nearly as much so, in Mississippi. Part and parcel of our state being ranked at the bottom is this clinging to the past – a past that embraces inequality. For each person who endeavors to embrace racial equality here, it’s evident that there are two others steadfast in their claim to remain behind or lack the fortitude to take a stand for righteousness.

Here, our elected legislators have to lie to their own eyes when they issue their “hard working Mississippians” dog whistles. Every day there are hundreds of black Mississippians hard at work in the Capitol building itself. There are state agencies around the state filled with non-white workers, where the nearly all-white agency heads rely on the work being produced to hone decision-making and accomplish agency objectives.

The idea that black people don’t want to work in Mississippi is a cruel fallacy.

On any given week of the year, just ask yourself how many black Mississippians are turned down when seeking employment across the state? Often, Help Wanted comes with the unspoken caveat of race. How many times are job seekers strung along? We are never able to see all the attempts made to seek employment, nor are records kept of all the times when those attempts are rebuffed simply because of race.

Recently we had the example of large financial settlements being reached out of court by massive Delta farming operations after getting caught replacing their black farm workers with white ones who had obtained fraudulent H-2A visas from South Africa, as reported by multiple sources including The Mississippi Center for Justice and Mississippi Today. White people, many times without necessary skills, flown into Mississippi, and paid more than experienced black workers. Stunning discrimination. Stunning disregard. Have you heard a peep about it from our elected leaders, our Governor, our Lt. Governor – you know, the ones who claim to govern for all of Mississippi?

When we see black unemployment rates typically double those of white unemployment rates, it is simply another vivid example of Mississippi’s backwardness, aided and abetted by a majority of its’ elected leaders – a reflection not on our black population at all, but on an unreconstructed state that won’t see its way to justice.

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