The Power of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

A few weeks ago there was an interesting op-ed from the Advocate titled “No, the South Isn’t a ‘New Frontier’ for LGBT Rights”.  The authors points out that there are plenty of people already fighting for those rights, but they don’t make the news (although the Campaign for Southern Equality did so last week) .  It doesn’t fit with the prevailing perceptions of the South as backward and lagging behind on LGBT rights.  They further make the assertion that a big part of the problem is the perception of backwardness which leads to disparities in funding and support given to groups fighting for those rights.

Though I am not involved in the movement as anything more than a supporter, a few points jive with my experience.  First of all, there is the perception of backwardness.  Really this needs no explaining. People both inside and outside of Mississippi are well aware of its perception around the country. Within the state, the Delta is seen as a rough land of poverty and desolation, forgotten by time. Certainly the facts do not look good, but as I will mention below they are not the full picture. Second, Mississippi is more diverse than most outsiders realize.  A lot of folks, particularly up North, think that everyone down here is all about God, guns, and the SEC and really not much else.  But I’ve found that not everyone is religious or a football fan or deeply conservative.  Just like much of the rest of the country is not monolithic, neither is the South.

Some of that the perception is shaped by a few people.  Politics in Mississippi tends to be dominated by a few people who pass policies which, at best, are unhelpful to the rest of the state. Likewise businesses and money are concentrated in a few places such as the Jackson area.  Not everyone agrees with this state of affairs, but there does not seem to anyway to change it.  So people shuffle on as best they can.

But its more than that.  Take, for example, this article from the BBC from a few years ago.  It talks about poverty in the Mississippi Delta and what progress has been made since the 1960s.  The answer the give is: very little.  Yet articles such as that one tend not to mention Cleveland.  Admittedly there are better known Clevelands (such as that one up in Ohio).  But I’ve seen folks come right through town and not even mention it.   Anthony Bourdain even went to the Senator’s Place which is in Cleveland and did not so much as mention the name of the town.  We manage to attract people from all over the world and yet the media hardly mentions us.  It’s frustrating enough that I can see the point the authors of the Advocate article were trying to make.  A little recognition might do some good for projects like the Grammy Museum which will be opening next year or for Delta State itself.

Then again it may not.  In regards to poverty, there are a lot of macroeconomic factors at work. The Delta has decline in part due to white flight, but there have been changes in the nation as a whole. Cotton is grown in many places other than Mississippi.  The Delta has other crops too, but farming can only employ so many people.  Then there are the politics.  Those are not so easily changed. People vote the way they do for a variety of complex reasons.  Its hard to see outside influence having much of an impact on state politics.  Just look at what happened to the Affordable Care Act down here. And on the issue of LGBT rights you run into the power that religion holds on the culture of the state. The fact is this is a very religious state and its hard, for me anyway, to imagine that changing just because of increased funding for some groups. You can certainly change laws, as may happen this week, but cultural attitudes are a whole different ballgame.

However people are fighting all the same.  As a progressive it can be difficult to see the bright side of things in a year like this which is exacerbated by my tendency to not follow local politics.  But there is opposition to the status quo in this state as embodied by groups such as Mississippians United Against Personhood, The Campaign for Southern Equality, and Mississippi First and people such as Congressman Bennie Thompson who is a member of the House Progressive Caucus.  These folks tend not to make national headlines which makes their fight harder.

So we need to be careful about self-fulfilling prophecies.  Politicians have a way of staying in power whether or not they have any true support.  By buying into stereotypes about places like Mississippi, people end up glossing over the complexities of the situation.  Just because a situation is bad doesn’t mean it has to be so.   People in this country often live in bubbles and its important to examine our assumptions about places we’ve never been to.

Article by Mike

Mike is the Head of Discovery Services for the Delta State University Library. He has lived in Cleveland since May 2013.

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