Is Racial Violence Part of Mississippi's Past or Present?

It depends whom you ask. Ten young locals have pleaded guilty to federal hate-crime charges in Jackson, but white leaders don't want to talk about it.

Trying to get white residents in suburban Jackson, Miss., to discuss the gruesome hate crime that ended the life of a black autoworker is not easy. Last month, two young adults from Rankin County pleaded guilty to federal hate-crime charges for attacking African-Americans in Jackson when they were teenagers, part of a spree they called "n--- bashing." Their pleas ended the federal government's first prosecution in the state under the 2009 Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. John Blalack and Robert Rice are the last of 10 defendants who admitted to the attacks, the kind of racial crime that has plagued Mississippi for decades. Deryl Dedmon, the ringleader, is serving a life sentence for running over James Anderson with a truck after the group robbed him.

Leaders of the mostly-white community where the teens live have been tight-lipped about the issue of racism in their backyards. All five members of the county's board of supervisors declined to talk to National Journal about it, and city officials from the county seat of Brandon either declined to talk or did not respond to requests for an interview. The last four defendants who pleaded guilty to the hate-crime charges also declined to speak or did not respond to interview requests through their attorneys.

One man did agree to talk: Perry Sanderford, who has lived in Rankin County for more than 30 years and is founder of Crossroads Counseling Center, a Christian family-counseling center affiliated with the Rankin County Baptist Association. He's white. Sanderford talked with National Journal about how Anderson's murder has affected the community and what it says about race relations in Jackson.

What was your reaction when you found out that the murder of James Anderson was racially motivated?

It's sad. Any time life is lost due to a criminal element, it's sad. But it's not indicative of our culture. At any moment, minor elements of any culture or environment can show itself. That doesn't represent the reality of the culture.

What are race relations like in Rankin County?

We've come a long way. If you'll remember, in the civil-rights era we were having difficulties making adjustments. But this here was an isolated event. What I think happened was a small group were motivated by the least emotionally mature element and there was no accountability, no one to challenge them. These were teenagers and apparently quite isolated. But it doesn't represent the culture of race relations in Rankin County.

Rankin County is home to two branches of the KKK. What does this say about racism in your community?

I've lived here 40 years; that element does not show itself. I've never seen them, I do not hear about it. We work together very well among all races in Rankin County. And that's a reality. The sad thing is that the old wounds of the past were triggered by a very isolated event and it has the potential to color this as the present reality. It's just not true. It's the past reality. To this family, this is death and this is hard—and to the family of the adolescents that acted this out, it is also a sad day.

I've had a really hard time getting local leaders to talk about this. Is race a taboo subject?

A hesitancy to talk about it does not mean there is a problem. The hesitancy is because we've gotten to a place of respect where we do not want to offend, so we tend to not focus on the negative.

So do you think racial violence should or shouldn't be discussed?

I think it can be discussed in a forum where there is open dialogue and understanding. It's a sad, difficult subject, and it's like an old wound. Many people don't want to go back to that trauma. There has been lots of healing and great relationships over the years. Of course there's a small element that surfaces every now and then, but like I said, that doesn't represent us.

You have a lot of experience as a Christian family counselor. How do you think teens develop this sort of hatred?

I think a small group that's isolated has the potential to regress to the lowest emotionally mature level, and that's what happened. There's a seed that's been here since the beginning. Cain slew his brother—it's not new. We live in a culture of death; it's trained through videos and news. These young people grow up on the media. Violence is a part of the culture. It's just a horrific tragedy, but also I think it was just violence, rage.

How does the community move forward from here?

I think continued open dialogue for greater understanding and an appreciation of diversity. I believe it's happening. Mississippi ranks number two as the state where people make the most charitable contributions for the betterment of others. But we do have a history. We have, like, PTSD—I think the nation harks back to the pain of the past that may have been targeted in the South, and a lot of that has healed and moved on. But the nation triggers that past about the South, and there is a lot more than that going on.