TUNICA is really two communities, deeply divided by race and wealth, and the economic boom that was at first greeted as a universal good has in many ways exacerbated the county's division. Blacks believe that even if casino revenues prove to be a rising tide that lifts all boats, it still won't lift them out of their subordinate position. Some blacks fear that Tunica's new prosperity might make their place in the county even more marginal.
Whereas legalized gambling is the most recent in a series of attempts to bring industry to the area, historically such efforts have been designed to retain and increase the minority white population rather than to create employment for blacks. Many of Tunica's whites, it seems, see casino gambling as a means to transform Tunica into a white middle-class exurb of Memphis.
Ken Murphree, the county administrator, talks hopefully about golf courses, factory-outlet malls, and retirement communities to solidify Tunica's new image as a center for recreation and leisure. His wife, Connie Murphree, points out that Tunica's quiet rural atmosphere would make it a haven for those who want to escape urban problems. If the casinos succeed, and the leisure industry develops as its boosters hope, the county will attract young couples wanting to work and retirees ready to play, and will house them in new condominiums and planned communities. Eventually Tunica will attract middle-class families with jobs in Memphis who want a better house on more land than they can afford in the city, and the county, with what its promoters call a "nice little Southern town" at its core, will prosper as a bedroom community for Memphis and a retirement center for the mid-South.
Tunica's blacks are conspicuously absent from this vision. In fact, it's impossible to reconcile the existence of a majority population that is still desperately poor and difficult to employ with this idea of what Tunica's boosters would like the county to become. Already, with the rise in land values, those who are ill equipped to take advantage of Tunica's new opportunities are seeing their rents skyrocket while their housing remains substandard. As Clifford Cox, the director of Tunica Habitat for Humanity, observed over coffee last summer, "This county is so dollar-signs-in-the-eyes that they're not looking at the small community--the citizens that are already here. They're concentrating on how to bring people in."
Tunica's transformation seems to be off to a good start. One of the county's largest landowners has joined with developers from Memphis to build a planned community in Robinsonville, near the casinos. But some of Tunica's blacks worry that the closer the county's leaders come to realizing their vision, the more marginalized the black population will become. Although an influx of families with good incomes would seem to be a boon to the county's educational system, for instance, Willie Dismuke, the high school principal, assumes that such growth will ultimately result in two public schools, one for affluent white newcomers, one for poor black Tunica natives. (Indeed, a new elementary school to serve the anticipated population boom in the Robinsonville area is now under consideration.) Whether or not events prove Dismuke right, his assumption that Tunica will steadfastly remain two communities even if the county's economy and population change radically shows a striking lack of confidence in Tunica's ability or willingness to allow race relations to change.
FROM the time when public schooling for Tunica's blacks meant one-room schoolhouses on the plantations, where education was limited by the demands of the cotton crop and stopped at eighth grade; through the period 1952-1970, when the schoolhouses were closed and blacks and whites attended separate and unequal elementary and high schools; through desegregation, when the white community abruptly and en masse abandoned Tunica's public schools, the county's educational system has epitomized its racial divide. Today the debate over how much of Tunica's new wealth should be spent on public education brings the county's racial division to a head.
To the county board of supervisors, which is 60 percent white, investing in Tunica means building infrastructure to support the casinos and to attract more business. (The board has also been pleased to cut property taxes by 50 percent, thanks to the counpy's new casino-generated income.) This may seem like a reasonable course for developing the county, but it neglects the most obvious obstacle to the economic progress of Tunica's majority.
Mississippi's public schools are considered the worst in the nation, and Tunica's school system is among the worst in Mississippi. Tunica's school district ranked 152 out of 153 in a statewide literacy exam in 1995, and its students have consistently tested so poorly on various achievement exams that the Mississippi Department of Education has placed the district on probation for seven of the past eight years. Although the casinos have tried to hire Tunicans as often as possible, if only for the sake of good public relations, they have found most blacks from Tunica to be unprepared for all but the most menial positions. Illiteracy plagues the black population, and many of Tunica's blacks lack the math skills not only to be dealers but, according to the casinos, even to make change.
Improving Tunica's abysmal public education would seem to be an obvious first step in any effort to better the lives of its citizens and strengthen the county's economic prospects overall, but originally the supervisors were not going to allot any of the county's take to the public schools. And although in many places public education unites parents of different races and economic levels, in Tunica the coalition of community activists and teachers that hired a lawyer to get the county to allocate casino revenues to the schools was entirely black.
In response to the black community's continuing demands that the county devote more money to education, many in the white community maintain that the schools' problems do not stem from a lack of funds. They suggest that the Tunica school district has for years spent more per pupil than the average Mississippi school district. In 1986, however, Tunica ranked 142 out of 154 in per-pupil spending. Today, largely thanks to state and federal money, Tunica does indeed spend more than the Mississippi average on its pupils, but to argue that the amount is adequate seems somewhat disingenuous, since far more than average expenditure would be required to offset the extreme disadvantages under which Tunica's black students labor. Certainly whites in Tunica need not have bad intentions to believe that the windfall from the casinos is better spent on infrastructure, but their motives are automatically suspect whenever a decision involves the public schools, because they long ago forsook that institution. It is no doubt galling to many blacks in Tunica that whites make choices about schools they didn't attend and to which they don't send their children, and equally galling to many whites that they must help support schools they don't use.
Perhaps most frustrating for the black population is that Tunica does not seem eager to make a place for even those blacks who have been able to take advantage of the new opportunities the casinos have presented to improve their lives. Some black Tunicans have managed to earn enough money working in the casinos to get themselves off welfare. Now they would like to buy houses in the community where their families have lived for generations. Whereas it would seem that these are just the sort of citizens that Tunica might like to keep, the county is in fact offering them little reward for their efforts. Few low-cost, decent houses are available in Tunica, and there seems to be some effort to keep things that way. Perceiving a new market, Bob Hall, a local developer, is trying to build houses that those blacks who are now steadily employed can afford with a Federal Housing Administration loan, and he blames the town's planning commission for trying to stall him. According to Hall, who is white, people argue that they don't want "that kind of housing," which he translates to mean that they don't want "any more houses for black people to live in."
Although Sister Gus Griffin concedes that the white community has become more willing than it was in the past to permit changes that will help the black population, she nevertheless believes that whites on the whole are unlikely "to do anything to make it easier for African-Americans to live in Tunica." Surprisingly, however, given this atmosphere, even those blacks who now have the means to leave Tunica want to stay. A love for the place is one of the few things blacks and whites share in Tunica. Reflecting the views of many in the black community, Freddie Brandon, a board member of a Tunica housing-assistance organization, asserted during a conversation last fall, "This is our home; we're not going anywhere."