Jesmyn Ward: Racism is ‘built into the very bones’ of Mississippi
That Espy is even within shouting distance of Hyde-Smith might be considered a major victory for Democrats. Donald Trump won the state by 17 points in 2016. Espy, who won 40 percent of the vote in November’s special election, likely only qualified for Tuesday’s runoff because the Republican vote was split. Hyde-Smith, who was appointed by Governor Phil Bryant to fill Thad Cochran’s Senate seat in April, was undercut by the candidacy of Chris McDaniel, a Republican state senator who barely lost to Cochran in a 2014 Senate runoff. Few early polls predicted that Tuesday’s election would be anything more than a formality.
Espy is still not expected to win. According to FiveThirtyEight, a mid-November survey found Hyde-Smith up 11 points, although the poll was conducted by a Republican-leaning firm. But there are signs that he could outperform a traditional Democrat. A heavy dose of national attention on the election, and a fund-raising boost for Espy, should tighten the race.
For Hyde-Smith, the closing stretch has been marked by several charges of racism. In a state that was once the lynching capital of the country, the senator recently commented, when describing a campaign supporter, that “if he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” Hyde-Smith’s campaign has described her remarks as innocuous, and cast the backlash as race-baiting. But in a bizarre press conference during the media frenzy that followed, Bryant dug deeper into racist tropes to defend her, implying that black women were to blame for “the genocide of 20 million African American children” through abortion.
It’s unclear if that episode will hurt Hyde-Smith. Given Mississippi’s history, it might be naive to think so. Charges of racism and of neo-Confederate sympathies are not new in Hyde-Smith’s recent career. News reports have zeroed in on comments she made praising Confederate soldiers, on legislation she endorsed in the state Senate to rename a highway after Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and on a photo of her in a Confederate soldier’s cap with the caption “Mississippi history at its best!”
One report in particular has proved especially controversial nationally: Hyde-Smith’s attendance at a “segregation academy”—a term used throughout the South for private schools that were created in response to public-school integration—and her choice to send her daughter to one, too. But suggestions in the media that their attendance is a liability ignores one pretty basic element: that segregation academies are ubiquitous in Mississippi, and are relatively normal parts of life for much of the white voting base that Hyde-Smith will need to win. Indeed, it’s possible that, as has happened time and again in Mississippi, national scrutiny of local education policy could help her with some white voters. These schools are lasting reminders of the scourge of white supremacy, but the fact is that white supremacy can still win votes.