Monte Carlo, Mississippi

Tunica County, in the Mississippi Delta, has long been among the poorest places in America. But casino gambling is changing Tunica's prospects. The rich Delta soil is sprouting golf courses, and if all goes according to plan, white retirees will soon be moving in. Meanwhile, blacks, Tunica's majority, are not sharing in the boom and are under financial pressure to leave the land that their labor transformed from a vast swamp
A White Exburb?

IT remains to be seen whether Tunica's gamble on casinos will pay off in the long run. County officials and the Chamber of Commerce eye neighboring states and counties nervously, fearing that if Memphis, for instance, decides to throw its doors open to casinos, a substantial number of Tunica's gamblers will drift away. The next year, according to developers and local officials, is crucial: if no competing market emerges in that time, Tunica will be so well established as a gaming mecca that future competition will pose little threat. If all goes well, by early 1997 the county will have consolidated its position, reassuring still more developers that Tunica is a safe investment and encouraging them to sink their money into the rich Delta soil.

Whatever their future, the casinos are booming in Tunica now, and although, located seven miles from the county seat, they have not yet penetrated Tunica's core, they are certainly edging the county into modern America. Dinner out in Tunica used to mean fried catfish or chitterlings at the Blue and White, which caters mostly to whites, or Vada's Diner, which caters mostly to blacks. Now a Tunican need only drive to the Circus Circus casino to order cioppino and tiramisu. More important, the casinos are happy to take everybody's money. "We love to go out to eat out there," Sister Gus says, "to see people of both races sitting down in the same room." As employers, too, the casinos are potentially a progressive force that could push Tunica out of its well-worn groove. They are a source of wealth and opportunity beyond the control of the traditional economic and political powers in the county. And with no interest in anything but turning a profit, they have no stake in maintaining Tunica's caste system.

If the casinos succeed in jarring the county out of decades of economic and social stagnation, Tunica will have an opportunity far more profound than anyone could have imagined just three years ago: it will have the means to remake itself. If it so chooses, Tunica can use its new resources to prepare its people to take advantage of the chance afforded by the casinos. The county can define its needs as the needs of the majority of its citizens. But if it is true, as one longtime white Tunica resident asserts, echoing an oft-repeated observation, that whites "want things to stay the same; they don't want blacks to get ahead," it is unlikely, to say the least, that Tunica will make this choice. Even if there are many exceptions to this dismal assessment, focusing on changing the lives of the county's poor would mean sacrificing the strides the county could make were it not hampered by this population--sacrificing, in other words, the vision of Tunica as a prosperous white exurb.

To arrive at a thriving exurb of golf courses and retirement condos, those who would re-create the county must essentially see Tunica as a blank canvas. Then they can decide how best to work with the medium they have been given--the casinos--to bring the place (although not necessarily its population) to its fullest potential. Ironically, the economic tide that should be bringing black Tunicans into the mainstream may instead allow white Tunica to push them even further into the backwater, while white Tunicans chase their dream of a prosperous rural southern town--essentially what the town of Tunica would be today if the black areas at its edges could be ignored.

As prosperous people move into Tunica, for instance, they will dilute the force of poverty there by making what is now a poor black majority--with potential, if not actual, political power--an underclass minority. This population will decrease not only in relative size but also in absolute number, as those who cannot take advantage of the new economic opportunities are displaced by the rising rents that accompany prosperity. So although the casinos help to alleviate the county's poverty, they are also a means by which the middle class can distance itself from the poor in Tunica, as it has in much of the rest of the United States.

If rising costs pressure the black poor and they find Tunica uncomfortable, they can always go to Memphis, as some whites have suggested in exasperation. Such a "solution" is hardly original. In moving out, Tunica's blacks would, from the point of view of the white community, be following the pattern of black migration that occurred earlier in this century, leaving the county because they are not economically useful there. Moreover, Memphis has an inner city populated by impoverished blacks, so white Tunicans fall in line with the rest of the country when they identify the ghetto as the place where poor blacks belong.

"Solving" problems by turning one's back on them has long been the American way. It is in some sense the flip side of pursuing opportunity. This attitude brought much of America's population here in the first place. It was also the way of those who abandoned their worn-out, useless land and settled the Delta. It is often a way to better oneself, to get ahead, but it becomes a different matter when those who are turning their backs equate the problem they are escaping with people. It is one thing to abandon land when it has outlived its economic usefulness, and another to abandon a population.

Because the county has maintained such a distance between the races, white Tunica can disassociate itself from the county's problems by equating them with the black population--much the way whites in Los Angeles, say, view their city's impoverished minorities as a foreign presence imposed on the place, depressing its economy and culture. Such an attitude, ungenerous everywhere, is especially misguided in Tunica, where blacks have been a majority since the Delta was settled. In fact, if either group can claim more credit for making the Delta prosper, it is the African-Americans. If they belong anywhere, they belong in a place that they built, sharing in its prosperity.

Those who believe and can behave as if the fates of blacks and whites in Tunica are not bound together are fooling themselves. In explaining how the white southerner is defined by the African-American, despite the separation of the races, William Styron has written, "In the South [the African-American] is a perpetual and immutable part of history itself, a piece of the vast fabric so integral and necessary that without him the fabric dissolves." Much as they might wish and work to do so, it is more than a century too late for whites and blacks in the Delta, "the most southern place on earth," to divorce themselves from one another without losing an integral part of themselves.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is the author of a forthcoming book on Winston Churchill.

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