The people of Mississippi have not been angels. The history of the Magnolia State and segregation invites the kind of scrutiny and criticism that has recently been visited upon the state. Media reports that the Walthall County School District has been ordered to stop segregating its schools raised the ire of most Americans because it was a reminder of a particularly ugly moment in this nation’s history–-a history that Americans have no desire to repeat.
Still it stretches the limits of credulity when a school that is 66% white and 35% black is labeled a “racially identifiable ‘white’” school and the county supporting the school is depicted as filled with a bunch of ugly racists just itching to don the bed sheets and ride through the night terrorizing the countryside. Yet, that is exactly the case in Walthall County, Mississippi.
Walthall County is a rural community of about 15,000 people – 54% of whom are white, 45% of whom are black. The school district services a total of 2,500 students. At issue are Tylertown, which sits in a predominately black community and has a black enrollment of 75%, and Salem Attendance Academy the “racially identifiable white school.”
Over the years the school district has allowed hundreds of white students to transfer out of Tylertown and into Salem resulting in race ratios the U.S. Justice Department finds unacceptable. In a written statement, Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general in charge of the civil rights division, said, “It is unacceptable for school districts to act in a way that encourages or tolerates the resegregation of public schools…" (It should be noted that the school district also allowed many black students to transfer from Tylertown to Salem and, while the media accounts do not say, the numbers seem to suggest that a large number of black students also transferred from Salem to Tylertown.)
Mr. Perez is legitimately concerned that if left unchecked the schools in Mississippi may slide back into separate and unequal institutions; kind of like schools in Detroit, New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, (and other places).
In our haste to announce ourselves morally superior to those “rednecks” in Mississippi we have rushed past a few facts, which also conveniently allow us to skirt some uncomfortable questions.