For the Republican Senate candidate in Mississippi, racism is a feature, not a bug.
The validity of that proposition was highlighted today by a report in The Jackson Free Press that Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), who is locked in a run-off race in the state against former Agricultural Secretary Mike Espy after neither candidate won the required 50% of the votes on election day, “attended and graduated from a segregation academy that was set up so that white parents could avoid having to send their children to schools with black students, a yearbook reveals.”
That Hyde-Smith — who was appointed as the junior senator for the state by Governor Phil Bryant in April after Senator Thad Cochran resigned over health issues — is white and Epsy is African American has made racial polarization a significant issue in the state with the highest percentage of black citizens in the country.
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Despite initially being heavily favored to easily win the runoff in the deep-red state, Hyde-Smith has managed to give Espy an opening to win a historic victory through a series of gaffes that exposed her to credible charges of racism and have kept her poll numbers much tighter than anyone could have previously imagined.
First, there was her bizarrely enthusiastic comment that she would gladly sit in the front row if she were invited to a public hanging by a supporter she was speaking with, not a particularly sensitive remark for someone seeking a full-term representing a state that was responsible for the highest number of lynchings of African-Americans of any state in the nation.
Then there was the laughably unapologetic statement she made dismissing any criticism of the comment she made as absurd.
“In a comment on Nov. 2, I referred to accepting an invitation to a speaking engagement. In referencing the one who invited me, I used an exaggerated expression of regard, and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous,” Hyde-Smith said in a statement.
Her official statement was followed by a pathetic news conference in which the Senator refused to say anything beyond her initial comments on the issue, repeating over and over again “We put out a statement yesterday and I stand by the statement” to the point of highlighting her evasiveness and discomfort.
Add to this the discovery of old photos of Hyde-Smith posing in Confederate army regalia, and today’s revelation is hardly surprising. The Lawrence County Academy yearbook, called The Rebel of course, features a photo of the future Senator in a cheerleader outfit under a mascot dressed up as a Confederate general and holding a Confederate flag.
“The photo, and the recently appointed Republican senator’s attendance at one of the many private schools that was set up to bypass integration, adds historic context to comments she made in recent weeks about a ‘public hanging’ that drew condemnations from across the political spectrum,” the Free Press declared.
“It is no coincidence that the academy Hyde-Smith attended opened the very year after the highest court’s ultimatum, as did others around the state,” the Free Press noted. “The Legislature even approved private-school vouchers for white families to offset the costs of sending their kids to whites-only private schools.”
One could be charitable and say that it was Hyde-Smith’s parents who made the decision to send her to a segregationist school, but the fact that the Senator has sent her own daughter to a similar institution torpedos that excuse.
“Even to this day, Brookhaven Academy, from which Hyde-Smith’s daughter graduated in 2017, is almost all-white. In the 2015-2016 school year, Brookhaven Academy enrolled 386 white children, five Asian children, and just one black child, the National Center for Education Statistics shows,” the Free Press explained. “That’s despite the fact that Census statistics show Brookhaven is 55 percent black and 43 percent white, per 2016 Census estimates.”
While the kind of regressive thinking that this behavior indicates may be a liability in many states, in Mississippi racist dog whistles may be the main attraction for a certain segment of the Republican base in the state.
Yet with a highly-qualified African-American opponent, Hyde-Smith’s lack of skill in disguising her appeals to the fears and prejudices of her deep south electorate may just be enough to raise the voter turnout in a state that is 37% black to make the race truly competitive.
With the runoff scheduled for Tuesday, we’ll soon know if Hyde-Smith’s mistakes will cost her the election for a full-term beyond her few months as an appointed Senator. Let’s hope that Mississippi makes a decision that propels it into the future rather than leaves it mired in the racial animosity of its tragic past.
Follow Vinnie Longobardo on Twitter.