Posted on February 23, 2023

In Mississippi’s Capital, Old Racial Divides Take New Forms

Michael Wines, New York Times, February 20, 2023

Mississippi’s struggling capital has been a favored target of Republican leaders since the G.O.P. took total control of the state a decade ago. But perhaps none of the slings and arrows flung at Jackson has provoked as much outrage as the one the state House of Representatives loosed earlier this month.

Legislators approved a bill that would establish a separate court system for roughly one-fifth of Jackson, run by state-appointed judges and served by the state-run police force that currently patrols the area around Mississippi government buildings. For the neighborhoods it would cover, the entire apparatus would effectively supplant the existing Hinds County Circuit Court, whose four judges are elected, and the city-run Jackson Police Department.

The proposal might be less provocative if not for the inescapable context: More than eight in 10 of Jackson’s 150,000 residents, as well as most of its elected leaders, judges and police officers, are African Americans. The proposed court system, and the police force, would be controlled almost exclusively by white officials in the state government.

Atop that, the new courts and police patrols would serve neighborhoods that contain the bulk of Jackson’s white population. The city’s Black neighborhoods would largely be skirted.

For many prominent Jacksonians, this evoked earlier eras in Mississippi’s complicated racial history. The city’s Black Democratic mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, minced no words after the House vote.

“Some of the other legislators, I was surprised that they came half-dressed, because they forgot to wear their hoods,” he said.

That stung the bill’s chief sponsor, State Representative John Thomas “Trey” Lamar, a 43-year-old Republican from Mississippi’s rural northwest. Mr. Lamar said his bill was a sincere effort to solve two of the city’s most pressing problems — soaring crime and a huge backlog in the courts.


The state’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, has sometimes accused Mr. Lumumba of mismanaging the city, focusing on the state’s need to help when the long-neglected local water system collapsed in 2021. {snip}

This year, Mr. Lamar’s legislation is but one of several G.O.P.-backed bills that would, among other things, assert control over the water system and reallocate Jackson’s use of sales tax collections.

The racial subtext is difficult to ignore: All 112 Republican state senators and representatives are white. All but four of the 58 Democratic legislators are Black.


Mayor Lumumba, who, at 34, is the youngest leader in the city’s history, likened the takeover bills to colonization.


For all the acrimony in Jackson, concern about the city’s decline crosses political and racial lines. {snip}

Jackson is a city with Southern bones — graceful churches, monumental civic buildings, a stunning antebellum mansion that houses the governor. But it is in sharp decline, its population and tax base sapped by white flight — and later, flight by Black middle-class families — to the city’s northern suburbs and outlying counties.

A parade of mayors have wrestled unsuccessfully with declining schools and infrastructure, like streets and the water system, and with policing. Crime increased sharply with the onset of the Covid pandemic, and the city recorded one of the nation’s highest murder rates in 2021. The police department is roughly 100 officers short of full strength, according to the Jackson City Council.

Hundreds of cases are backed up in the courts, leaving people accused of crimes awaiting trial for months and even years in conditions that can charitably be called substandard.

Six years ago, leaders on both sides launched a modest effort to ease the city government’s burden. The state created a Capitol City Improvement District that included downtown and state government buildings, and agreed to take over maintaining streets and other public assets within the district. To keep order, a small force of capitol security officers patrolled the district in hatchbacks topped with flashing orange lights.


As crime rose, Governor Reeves expanded the district’s borders and hired new officers in 2021. Last year the legislature voted — with Democratic support that included some Black lawmakers — to dramatically beef up the policing effort. A force projected to reach 150 officers began patrolling last spring in new black-and-white S.U.V.s that seemed to command almost every street corner.

Crime in the capitol improvement district ebbed. {snip}

The dense knot of white government workers who live near the state offices within the district have applauded the new patrols. Many Black residents saw something different, and complained that officers were both disrespectful and too aggressive toward them.


Both Black and white critics have accused G.O.P. lawmakers of effectively creating a separate court and policing system for a white population that already enjoys the city’s lowest crime rates. {snip}

Mr. Lamar and other supporters of the measure point out that the population of the enlarged district would be 55 percent African American. But Jackson’s white community is so small that including most of it in the new district would still leave as many as seven or eight out of 10 Black residents outside its boundaries.